The Wolfskin is one of those books that defies hyperbole. Rarely are so many strains of literature combined so subtly. In the opening pages, it reads like Wuthering Heights rewritten by Céline: dim, dank exteriors, looming darkness and fog, but peopled by a despicable band of hypocritical reprobates from the Austrian backwoods. The plot unfurls with an imperative: “Let us dig up a corpse!” leading to the tale of a reckless young man, Hans Höller, who tears off one night on his motorcycle only to be found dead hours later, leaning against the window of an abandoned brick factory with his eyes wide open in horror. Johannes Unfreund, “the Sailor,” as he is known contemptuously in the town, finds the body. This is the first in a series of mysterious deaths that will lead the town on a witch hunt, persecuting such outsiders as the Zebra, an escaped prisoner who is beaten, then shot, the photographer, Maletta, who is nearly drowned in a cesspit, and the Sailor himself, the lone resident with an apparently intact conscience. All the while, rumor spreads that a wolf is terrorizing the village. As the Sailor comes closer to the unifying thread of these deaths, the novel’s perversity, bombast, and tension take on shades of Dostoevsky. In the end, it transpires that the murdered villagers, as well as Unfreund’s father, the suicide, were members of a local militia that executed a group of forced laborers from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in the spring of 1945, when the Axis was on the verge of capitulation. Habergeier, the local dignitary who ordered the executions, is immune from punishment due to his position in the local government. At the novel’s end, a stray dog is shot in the village, and when the Sailor goes to confront Habergeier, he sees its skin stretched out to dry. The people have gone on, in spite of evidence to the contrary, believing the story of the wolf, and Habergeier is preserving the pathetic creature’s pelt as a memento of his own bravery.
Lebert was an opera singer, nephew to Alban Berg, and unlike many Germans and Austrians who conveniently found their ideological redemption after the war, Lebert opposed Nazism from the beginning. He ignored his summons to the Wehrmacht, which under the laws against Wehrkraftersetzung was a crime punishable by execution, and only eluded death by feigning schizophrenia. His position is echoed by the Sailor in Wolfskin, who responds to an ex-soldier’s plea that he only used his weapon when he had to with the words: “Listen here! No one has to do anything. No one even has to live. That’s the starting point.” But The Wolfskin is far from an arid reckoning of accounts; it is at once lyrical and grotesquely funny. On one page, reminiscent of Adalbert Stifter, the coachman of the wind whips the clouds across the sky; on another, a stoic Jew’s account of waiting for the Messiah, which he says is a good thing, because man needs something to wait for in life, ends with the punch line, “Then he died of lung cancer.”
There are scholars who consider The Wolfskin the capstone of postwar Austrian literature. Doderer and Canetti praised it; there are passages describing the haunted Austrian landscape in Thomas Bernhard’s debut novel Frost that seem lifted almost verbatim from Lebert, as does the perspectival technique, based in hearsay, of such books as The Lime Works. Elfriede Jelinek has been a great champion of The Wolfskin, calling it “one of the masterpieces of world literature” and “the most thrilling experience of my life as a reader.” In a 2010 article on the book, she declared: “If the bitter rage and obsessive imprecations of Bernhard do little more than grate, if they barely blemish the outer walls (like throwing a cushion against a cement barrier), what appears in the work of Lebert is the great myth of a world that is now forever guilty… This country of serene amnesiacs doesn’t deserve a poet like Hans Lebert. And that is why it has hastened to forget him.”
I have been working on a translation of the book and have carried on a fairly extensive correspondence with German and English publishers in my efforts to get the book reprinted in its original language and published in English. Unfortunately, the rightsholder has no interest in seeing the book reprinted, and has not replied to me, the aforementioned publishers, or even entreaties from the Austrian Cultural Forum. It fucking sucks, I’ll keep trying, but even Lebert’s archives are currently kept off-limits from scholars, and Jürgen Egyptien, one of the major experts on Lebert’s work, has told me I can forget about it until the rights situation somehow changes. Whatever. Here’s ten pages of it, maybe I’ll post more another time.
If we look closer, the mysterious events that so shook us this past winter began not on the ninth of November, but on the eighth, in all probability, with that strange noise the sailor purported to have heard.
Indeed. But first, let’s take a look at the map.
This here is Schweigen; here, to the south lies Kahldorf. This is the Kahldorf-Schweigen station, and this the one-track spur that ends three stations further down. To the west is a ridge, the Eberbirge, that trails off toward Schweigen; the road from Kahldorf to Schweigen leads around the mountain. Here, on this curve to Schweigen’s south, is the suspect brickworks. And what else…? These here are fields, and that’s a forest; the points there represent individual farms, and the lines are paths that run off into the woods.
It’s a part of the country God’s left behind, a part of the country with nothing to offer, which is therefore barely known. Far from the big freeways, it lives out its bedimmed life, and whoever claims to know it – myself, for example – can say nothing more in the end than that it exists and that the foxes around here utter their goodnights in a language hard to understand (it sounds like someone mumbling into his beard). In the morning they slip off in the thickets, sniff around the farms, where smoke rises from the chimneys and smells of burnt feathers. Then they prick up their ears, and sweep the surroundings with their luminescent eyes: desolation. The treetops trapped in clouds; the rain drumming softly over harvested fields.
And now, back to the story!
On the eighth of November, around three in the morning, a malaise, a repugnant, frosty feeling, “like if the front door was left open,” awakened the sailor. So he stood up and made sure it was closed. He lay back down, but couldn’t fall asleep. Irritable, he got back up, lit his pipe, and looked out the window. Outside was a milky half-light. The moon, veiled behind clouds to the east, left a blanched spot on the snow, a puddle of tubercular pale brilliance that made the bare branches of the fruit trees stand out like shadows. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and everything seemed as it should be. But all at once, the sailor had a feeling, as if he were waiting for something to happen; and as he stood there and considered what kind of something that might be, he heard that strange noise no one has managed to explain to this day. It came, he said, from the direction of the brickworks, and little by little filled the vault of the sky. It sounded like a “ringing in the ears” or an Aeolian harp, as if the air was quivering in the heights like a tautened string.
The noise then died out, trickled vaguely into the vastness of the night, strayed into the woods, sank in the swampy lowlands where fog grew thicker toward morning and the hoarfrost glimmered on the grass. At last, it merged with the muted hum of the telephone wires (to which it bore a certain resemblance) until it could no longer be distinguished from it.
In those days we were back to sleeping well. We didn’t have any reason not to. We’d made it through the war and its assorted consequences, or so we thought; all through the country, things were looking up, prosperity was waiting in the wings; and if something did trouble us, most likely it was the return of boredom, which is endemic to the region in peacetime and wanders among the houses and the barbed wire fences like a gray, intangible phantom.
That day began with it (the boredom), just like any other day of the month. It sent forth a tear-streaked red (red like inflamed conjunctiva, though it faded after a few minutes) and then crept reluctantly over the crests of the hills. Even if it was a Saturday, and there was even a dance on at the Traube, there was no reason to reckon on anything unusual shattering the crippling circle of monotony, the noose of farming and husbandry, bare forests and brown swells of earth, which draws taut around our village as the year comes to an end.
Everything was like always. Trucks and motorcycles took to rumbling. The steam engine at the sawmill started panting like a man with a fever, and in the surrounding forests being felled, the lumberjacks’ axes awoke with a bellow. As on every morning in Schweigen, the stores opened up, the bakery, the general store, the butcher’s (which belonged to the Traube); and as on every morning, the children ran off to school, with silver clouds of breath before their faces.
And yet! Something was different (just had to be different) that sleepy Saturday, which we only found suspicious weeks later. Strange as it may seem, no one took note of it but the sailor, and even for him it was something vague, like a tension fraying the most delicate fibers of his nerves, and had he wanted to, he still couldn’t have said what it was, or even if it was anything at all.
He walked out of his house (the potter’s hut, which cowered squat over the village on the forest’s edge), looked up to the clouds, and grimaced. It wasn’t the air. It wasn’t the light, either. What was it then? Nothing. He listened hard, but heard only the rustling of the grass, the dry crackle of the branches in the forest, and the wheeze of the sawmill on the other side of the valley. He filled a pitcher with water at the well and went back in the house to brew coffee.
Let us dig up a corpse! Not one of the nameless that the sailor tried to dig up, but one we all knew well (and who, at that very moment, was getting spruced up for the Sunday he wouldn’t live to see), namely Hans Höller, son of the farmsteader Höller (the local big shot who owned the Lindenhof farm, which lay along the road to Kahldorf).
Around ten, he reached the village on his motorcycle, entered Ferdinand Zitter’s barbershop, and threw himself splay-legged into a chair. He was a handsome, strong kid, dressed head-to-toe in gleaming leather, and he and his machine made a perfect pair. He too looked freshly painted, he too gleamed as if he’d just rolled out of the factory, and when he sprawled there, pleased as punch, stretching out feet clad in Canadian boots, you had the feeling (if you were watching him, I mean) that he too, concealed a powerful motor, his heart must have been in tip-top shape.
“Shave!” he growled.
Ferdinand Zitter (an old, frail little man with white hair and tortoiseshell glasses that sat so low on his nose, they were constantly threatening to slide off) took a bow and rubbed his hands together.
“Right away,” he said, “Irma’s coming now. You want to take a look at the paper in the meanwhile?”
“Is it today’s?”
“Done read it,” the kid grumbled. He looked at himself in the mirror and whistled a snatch from a chart-topper.
Ferdinand Zitter told us later, after the calamity had occurred:
“Irma made him wait, like always. Probably she was eating her midmorning snack and had her fingers all covered in cheese or jam. So I decided to go ahead and soap Mr. Holler up, at least, in the meanwhile, even though I knew he wouldn’t care much for it, as he really was there because of Irma. I grabbed a clean towel and stuck it down in his collar. And I ran a hand over his cheek to see how stiff his beard was. Then I got scared. I got right scared indeed. His face felt like it was dead, it was cold and doughy – like the face of a corpse. After that, Irma showed up and took over the work for me. Thank God! My hands were twitching, and anyway, I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore.”
Hans Höller invited the barber’s apprentice to the dance at the Traube. She agreed (after long hesitation, though she was already planning on going), but he had to promise to pick her up at home, because – as she explained – she wasn’t about to trudge through the muck in the dark in her dancing shoes and show up there looking like a pig.
He nodded. Fine by him, they’d ride around a while before, she could check out his new machine. As she shaved him, she bent over, soft and warm, and afraid she’d cut him, he spoke in a deep voice, without moving his lips, like a ventriloquist, about the endless joys of riding a motorcycle. She listened with half-closed eyelids, credulous and slightly drowsy, occasionally suppressing a yawn. Now and then she smiled, let her teeth show between her lips, and said (it sounded like crickets chirping):
“Oh yeah? Really? How nice!”
Then she wiped the rest of the lather from his face, dried him off gently, splashed him with cologne, and tidied his hay-blond hair with a brush and comb.
The day lit up the frosted glass window with a gray, unappetizing light. Ferdinand Zitter sat next to the stove, which crackled and purred, and saw the whole thing.
“I had the feeling then,” he told us later, “that there was someone else in the shop besides the three of us, a fourth person, an invisible one, pointing a finger at Mr. Höller.”
“What was it?” we asked him. “What kind of feeling was it?”
He said: “A thing like that is hard to describe. It was like a great coldness. I thought I would freeze in there, even though I was sitting next to the stove (a combustion stove, no less, burns like you wouldn’t believe!).”
Directly across from the barbershop is the Suppan family’s house. It’s an old, sturdy dwelling, from the seventeenth century probably, and it has an attic with a mansard window that looks out on the street like a face. When Hans Höller left the establishment, mounted his machine, and cranked up the motor with an earsplitting roar, so every pane of glass in the surrounding area began to quiver, the following things occurred in that house: the curtain adorning the window (a white one with a lace border) was pushed slightly to the side, opening a dark gap wide enough for a single eye to peek through. It stayed that way for some time, and the lowering eye, which was certainly there, but which couldn’t be identified, watched the damned rascal till he took off with a hellish rattle, smoke streaming from the exhaust pipes, and turned onto the next corner.
Admitted! This is nothing to write home about. In Schweigen, if someone walks down the street, he can see an eye in every window following him more or less warily. Still, we’ll make an exception and mention it this time, since behind the aforementioned mansard window, as we all know, lived Karl Maletta, along with our photographs.
Let’s ponder things further:
A half an hour later (could be around ten-thirty), Konstantin Ukrutnik blessed us with his company, as usual. Ukrutnik is a cattleman, twenty-eight years old, six-foot-two, a monument of a man. He looks like a wrestler! His torso’s like a kettledrum; you want to knock on it to see if it echoes (like a cavity, like an empty barrel). But which of us clodhoppers would dare knock on that big cattleman’s chest? To hear him tell it, he’s strong as an ox and – this is far more dangerous – he reckons himself a classy gent because he’s got piles of cash and as many girlfriends as he does fingers.
Back then, he used to come down every Saturday (no one really knew why) and stay through the weekend. He’d go to the Traube, where he had a standing reservation, and talk with Franz Binder, innkeeper, farmer, and master butcher, about assorted, often dubious dealings they had with each other. He already had a thing for Herta Binder, the innkeeper’s daughter. He’d bring little gifts, usually a pair of nylon stockings, which she especially liked, though the supple fabric, stretched to bursting (Miss Binder, being a gymnast, had unusually formidable calves), generally broke out in runs the first time she tried them on.
This time she got a present, too, not stockings, but perfume, as though he’d divined her deepest concerns, because a body like that, you know, it has its needs. Beaming with joy (they do say that, don’t they?), beaming with joy, she stood in the doorway between the inn and the butcher’s stall. Her short, stubby fingers, greasy with fatback, tenderly clutched the phial, which even unopened gave off a distinguished aroma. Just then, Ukrutnik was driving his car (a former Wehrmacht vehicle) behind the house to the so-called garage.
There, in that windowless shed that stooped like a blind man next to the dung heap, useless knickknacks, the remnants from old hay carts, and other farm tools lay thrown one over the other in an unfathomable confusion, coated in dust and veiled with gray cobwebs. A cat crouched in the corner and wouldn’t take its eye off the big cattleman. It followed his movements with autumnal eyes, colorless eyes, as though harboring a strange, potent hatred. He had parked the car and was on his way out of the shed when he saw the cat and stopped. It was black.
They stared at each other motionless, as if poised to jump. The cat’s autumnal eyes lit up the shack, like a doubled moon in a mirage gilding the twilight. Ukrutnik’s eyes gleamed too, but very differently from those of the beast. They were dark and dull, the shade of rotting olives, glinting greenish like grease. He narrowed them into two thin slits, clenched his teeth, stuck out his chin, and tensed the muscles in his face. He hunched down next to the door, where the light of day shone in, and the cat stayed cowering in the rear of the shack, a motionless sphere of shadow. They scowled at each other, both holding their breath, and in the air between them, which seemed to scowl as well, something crackled, like electric sparks.
But the cattleman had no notion of all that. (Notions weren’t his forte.) All he felt was a blow on his back, the blow of an enigmatic fist, and he stumbled forward, still slouching, gliding toward the cat with soundless, predatory steps. He made a brusque movement, as if he wished to snatch it by the tail, and just then, the cat leapt and rushed past him like a black burst of wind.
All he saw was it scuttling out the door, hair on end and ears bent strangely backward, into the gray luminosity toward an outbuilding of the inn, where it vanished through a cellar window.
(This happened around eleven, and the smoke from the fireplaces already smelled of food; but instead of rising into the sky, it spread like suffocating ground fog over the landscape).
Now let’s talk about Maletta!
In the third year after the defeat (or liberation), on a May morning cold and damp as a dog’s nose, he showed up at the Suppans place. He introduced himself to the two old people, who up to then knew nothing of his existence, first as a kinsman and then as a victim of the war. “What do you mean, kin?” they asked him. He could only explain it vaguely. And what sort of victim, they wanted to know. About that, too, he offered little clarity. He rented one of the two attic rooms in their house (the other belonged to Miss Jakobi, the new schoolteacher), had his suitcases brought over from the train station by a team of oxen, unpacked his things, set up his camera, and attached a sign to the garden fence that he had evidently painted himself. MALETTA PHOTOS SECOND FLOOR LEFT, it read.
And since we’re all so handsome and since, naturally, we were curious as well, almost all of us went there and had ourselves photographed. Soon enough, he had papered the walls of his room with our pictures. It must have been dreadful, for everything that smacks of the multitude is dreadful.
Let us hear from an impartial witness, a coachman from elsewhere who had his photo snapped by Maletta, but had no connection to our matter:
He says: “Anyhow, it was around twelve, but when I went into his room, he was still in bed, the rotten bum. So me being salty, I roust him right up. Has he got to think it over, or what, I ask him. ‘Absolutely,’ he says, ‘absolutely.’ Then he stands up, pulls on the pants he had hanging over a chair, and squeezes his way into his shirt. ‘Indeed, I must reflect, and there is no better way to reflect than in bed.’ While he fiddles with his contraption, I take a look around the room. Some state it’s in! A wreck! And the walls all covered in photos! The big names from Schweigen and Kahldorf, one next to the other, and you could barely tell them all apart! ‘Good lord, now!’ I said. ‘Some group you got there! Don’t you ever get sick of them all gawking at you? ‘Just a question of habit,’ he says and smiles (with that face of his that looks like soft cheese), ‘Just a simple question of habit. Shall we?’ I sit myself down on a stool that was already set out and he vanishes behind his box. ‘These photos,’ I say, ‘they could give a guy the creeps. They look you straight in the face like they wanted to hypnotize you.’ He laughs, hidden under his black cloth. ‘Because they’re all staring so stubbornly into the lens, he says, ‘so the picture will better convey their character,’ he says. ‘Look at my finger, please!’ (A finger that looks like a cheese curd.) He holds it up high, like he wanted to explain something. ‘Attention…! Thanks,’ he says.
“ ‘But it is true,’ he says later, while I’m paying, ‘it’s hard to stand it in here sometimes; sometimes being here, you feel like a violet pressed into an album of mug shots.’