Gert Jonke - Fantastically madcap exploration of perception and reality which circles round and round before landing somewhere equally odd

Gert Jonke, The System of Vienna, Trans. by Vincent Kling Dalkey Archive, 2009.


"Gert Jonke opens The System of Vienna, an ostensibly autobiographical work, with the following: “Allow me first of all, in the interest of facilitating the greatest possible understanding, just a few brief words concerning the methodology of the working process I have adopted, thereby also expending a few more words on myself and my academic development.” Jonke then relays a short account of the hours before his birth, an account that can't be anything but fiction, without ever returning to discuss his “methodology,” which has of course already been demonstrated through this tale of his “beginnings.” Jonke emphasizes this with the compound distance of a synoptic description: “The story begins with a description of that cold winter night and how my mother allegedly started out not being able to find her shoes...”
In this way, The System of Vienna offers an older Gert Jonke a platform on which to compose the scattered pieces of his younger self, a “working process” that takes the reader along on a playful tour of the imaginative landscape where he grew up. Most writers spend the majority of their lives inside their own head, so, when writing an autobiography, it makes sense that Jonke would treat being-in-the-world and being-in-the-mind as inextricable. In The System of Vienna, he inhabits many modes: comic, ironic, metafictional, musical, romantic, sublime, absurd, surreal, fantastic, etc., all while meeting many paranoid and/or delusional characters, some of them Jonke’s own alter egos. It quickly becomes clear that Jonke can’t really—and does not intend to—write his “autobiography” without fictionalizing and outright inventing. For example, the first lines of “The Small City on the Lake”:
You know, I always make a connection between this small city, which I grew up in, and streetcars, even though no streetcars are in service there. Which leads to the conclusion that streetcars must have operated at one time, because how else would I ever have hit on the idea of connecting this place with streetcars?
Yes, there were streetcars traveling through this city at one time... if I think really hard...
Rather than simply recording the impressions that certain people, places, and things left on his consciousness, Jonke allows the alchemy of imagination to transform details from his life and express a world unmistakably infused with his DNA. While the notion of faulty human memory rearranging reality and fabricating to fill in the gaps is not new or groundbreaking, Jonke’s movements are more musical composition than critique of narrative memory. The early pieces follow a roughly chronological order through his childhood, but it’s with the jump into adulthood that the fog thickens, as events begin to swirl back into themselves while people and situations get increasingly strange and fantastic. Jonke’s tales resemble holding a mirror up to another mirror, the reflections drilling infinitely deep into labyrinthine corridors where some minotaur of meaning may or may not await, in the same way fractals appear to be so complex, but are in fact an image barnacled with infinitely receding miniatures of itself, a repetition, a refrain that becomes something different.
Another passage into Jonke’s labyrinth is “Opera Seminar—Metternich Grasse,” where the narrator agrees to assist a professor’s ridiculous and irrelevant slide show seminar even though he doesn’t want to. Inside the “opera department of the Music Academy,” the professor leads him “through the courtyard entrance, pointing out the elaborately wrought windows, interprets the meanings of all the stucco figures, the caryatids and atlantes along the walls...” and up along a “bewildering, twisting system of staircases and corridors,” finally arriving at the classroom where the lecture is to take place. But the professor has forgotten his slides and sends the narrator back down to find them. And, of course, the narrator gets lost, always taking the wrong corridor after mistaking the correct one for “a niche carved deep into the wall,” until eventually he finds an empty theater, sits down, and “[falls] asleep while thinking, no, don’t fall asleep.” When he later finds his way back to the classroom, he sees the professor had not forgotten the slides after all and is already halfway through his lecture.
Other of Jonke’s fractal characters and narrative mazes include a piece where the narrator attends a furniture show, not out of interest in furniture, but simply because the furniture is being displayed out in the open rather than in a room. He is hailed as the hundred thousandth visitor to the show and the Chancellor’s representative treats him to a beer. The Chancellor’s confidant confides in the narrator that he, the Chancellor’s confidant, does not feel like he is the Chancellor’s confidant, and then goes on to say how the Chancellor himself told his confidant that he, the Chancellor, sometimes cannot fathom that he is the Chancellor, of all people (from which he, the Chancellor bounces back into firm belief in his Chancellorhood, and then the Chancellor’s confidant also rebounds in the present conversation to affirm that he is indeed the Chancellor’s confidant.) The narrator is given a copy of a book entitled The System of Vienna, which he promptly leaves in a trashcan.
This and other repetitions may grate on some readers, but it is worth following Jonke through his dizzying loops of language and narrative, a representative example of which is the piece entitled “Jörger Strasse Prelude and Hernals Beltway Fugue,” a comedy ad absurdum taking the form of a letter recounting a story told to the letter-writer by his father, addressed to a man, an unwitting participant in the story of the letter-writer’s father leaving a confectionery shop and falling down on the sidewalk where “quite a large group of people gathered” and among them was the man to whom the letter is addressed.
Jonke’s finale, funny and moving, is the piece entitled “Caryatids and Atlantes—Vienna’s First Guest Workers,” with its dreamlike atmosphere and narrator softly deluded with the grandeur that his prodigious ability to sleep (with the help of pills, eventually) enthralls the stone statues upholding the buildings throughout the city:
My sleep performances soon came to be esteemed as a wondrously exotic, serenity-inducing form of Gesamtkunstwerk or all-encompassing work of art matchlessly flung high aloft by me, in all its incalculable vastness, into the air of those day-nights and night-days, aided by the sheer force of my individual personality.
That’s why my body was passed along the line... for the purpose of disseminating my sleep concerts, slumber plays, dreamer serenades, fatigue tragedies, exhaustion comedies, all to be marveled at...
In The System of Vienna, Gert Jonke creates what could be a literary image of Bach’s Goldberg Variations: the substance of each moment shifts and grows with each repetition, building on and yet changing everything before and after it at the same time, and the work as a whole would not be what it is without playing each repetition. Excess becomes essential to The System of Vienna, as the journey, especially the strange and sometimes pointless digressions, are what enrich and enliven the work. Finally, translator Vincent Kling’s afterword offers an insightful orientation to the place of The System of Vienna in Jonke’s body of work, suggesting that from the chaos of Jonke’s abundant imagination and playful innovation in narrative emerged the brilliantly ordered craftsmanship seen in later work like Geometric Regional Novel and Homage to Czerny. Gert Jonke was one of the great innovators of late 20th and early 21st Century literature—especially with his incorporation of music and mathematics into fiction—and, for the English-speaking world, each additional translated work is more supporting evidence that Jonke’s place is secure." - Josh Maday

"In his essay “William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient,” Louis Menand critiques the practice of taking an individual’s life and whittling it down to the convenient “crisis-resolution” narrative. Problem is, writes Menand, the second you start trying to impose a narrative structure on the complexity of human life, that’s when the gaps get filled with however many subjective theories different biographers can think up and argue over. In other words: any attempt to impose order only leads, ironically, to chaos.
Gert Jonke (1946-2009), one of Austria’s most original modern authors, was deeply concerned with entropy, particularly by the tendency of artificial systems of order to crumble and scatter. The System of Vienna, an autobiographical novel and one of his final works, tells of a double journey: a physical one through the city of Vienna and a psychological one through age. From the start, The System of Vienna also sets up the puzzle that is at the basis of all creative endeavors: how the artist/autobiographer intends to control, channel, and understand the universe’s chaos and translate that understanding into something coherent. Beyond that bare-bones outline, however, Jonke’s narrator is never quite able to work out a system through which to organize and articulate the chaotic vastness of his life.
The System of Vienna, with its broad expanse of characters and internal ruminations, could have easily ended up a sprawling chaos itself. Instead, this is where Jonke’s mastery of language comes in, and the result is an experimental yet accessible narrative that handles some hefty ideas in an elegant, readable, and even comic manner.
We follow Jonke’s narrator as he encounters a surprising array of unusual individuals and sorts through his own varied and whimsical interpretations of the world around him. We learn that random events, for example, can be set as the effect of a cause in a larger system. The narrator wants to jump off a bridge but the bridge he wants to jump off collapses first. His desire to jump off that bridge must have meant that the bridge had “simply locked me out, took off just as I was getting there, ran away from me at a mad dash, at the last minute, head over heels, wanted nothing to do with me...” Taken even further, attempts to “order” real life only end in paranoia or delusion, as seen by a wholesale fish dealer by the Danube, who thinks he controls all of Austrian politics and is next in line for the Chancellorship.
Although Jonke’s narrator is likely Jonke himself, The System of Vienna is ultimately a work of fiction. If, as Menand reminds us, (auto)biography (and particularly autobiography) is actually a subjective interpretation of an individual’s life – the “summing up” of a whole vortex of thoughts, ideas, emotions, events, and so forth – then “the very act of describing a life turns it into fiction.” So allowing for subjectivity, how much fantasy can we accept in (auto)biography? And if narrative informs how we view the world, then how do we understand reality? Jonke’s narrator can only attempt to write an autobiography, but his life story is inevitably reprocessed through his imagination and, as a result, he can never quite stay on track or even in the real world. At one point, Jonke uses the image of walking in an untamed landscape and becoming distracted by its riotous natural beauty until one finds oneself distracted from the task at hand, and finally lost in an “utter entanglement that keeps multiplying itself over and over in constant mutual duplication.” In looking for a system – a structure or guide by which to organize life into a tidy beginning-middle-end story – Jonke, ironically, only finds himself exploring why such a system would be nothing but a fabrication that will never sufficiently contain all that he is.
In his Afterward, translator Vincent Kling describes to the artist as an individual who defies the universe’s chaos and creates “a thing of beauty” that will be “a joy forever.” It is self-conscious arrangement, aware of its own artifice yet unable to exist without it. (M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands comes to mind.) Jonke seeks to parody this artistic “consciousness of arrangement,” without which coherent expression is impossible. So maybe it is possible that while we think we are living and interacting, our existence is actually “a single, unmitigated act of endlessly walking back and forth for hours in this enclosed space,” and reality itself, filtered through each individual’s eyes, is a kind of fiction that we invent as we go. Here, Gert Jonke asks us to examine the boundaries of, and interactions between, fantasy, reality, and understanding. The System of Vienna is a short book, but a provocative one, and the perfect send-off for one of Austria’s greatest modern writers." - Eileen Fay
"There is plenty fresh about Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna. Like the bulk of his work, this novel is musical, innovative, and difficult, not in a dusty academic way, but as a delightful puzzle, as a well-constructed argument, as a challenging game of chess... The System of Vienna is a sprawling autobiographical novel (some describe it as a collection of linked stories) full of outrageous characters bustling through even more outrageous scenes. Beginning with a recounting of the narrator’s birth, and how his skin was tinged blue, the novel proceeds with descriptions of events that helped shape his personality, his consciousness, his obsessions: he encounters a man who thinks the French Embassy was built in the wrong place; he meets another who is unsure whether he is or isn’t the Chancellor’s confidant; he bumps into an eccentric stamp collector in the woods he thinks was imitating a tawny owl’s call; he meets another man (perhaps Jonke’s tribute to André Gide’s The Counterfeiters) who hands him a book called The System of Vienna; and he meets a paranoid fish merchant who believes that he masterminds Austrian politics from his stall.
Jonke is adept at blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. And he ably navigates metafictional and musical composition elements with comedic and fabulist registers while also experimenting with language, with unique syntactic strategies that convincingly depict a person’s psychology, particularly one that is in crisis, on the page. The reading of the novel is hurried along by expressive hyphenations like “wrinkled-lined-shriveled” and “sheen-glinting,” and brimming with portmanteaus like “eveninglikemorningishly afternoonnight” and “opendoorclosedoorslyness.” These neologisms visually capture the speed in which the character experiences his rush of thoughts and sometimes even threaten to take over the narrative:
And were you not then actually inside the bakery and suddenly seated on the padded red plastic chair, and did you in all likelihood not even really take notice of the closingtheglassdoorbehindyou, your enteringthecoffeehouse-aroma, lookingforandchoosingaseat, goingovertooneofthosepaddedredplasticchairs and the seating of your person in such a way that it seemed to you as if nothing like this had ever occurred before…And the rush of cumulative sentences, insane, qualifying and self-correcting sentences that collapse upon each other, perfectly mirror the narrator’s decreased confidence, his fragmented consciousness, his quickly devolving sense of self:
Therein was to be sought the reason and the cause why things are sometimes, mostly sometimes, rather often, sometimes rather often, mostly sometimes rather often, mostly rather often, sometimes mostly mostly, mostly mostly not as they should be.As the novel progresses, the narrator falls into endless repetitions. It reaches its apotheosis in “Philosophy of Household Management”:
Since that time I don’t put flowers out onto the hallway window any more; I’ve given up putting flowers onto the hallway window, because it makes no sense to put flowers onto the hallway window, no, it’s not just senseless, but impossible, for that matter, since it’s not a common thing to set flowers onto hallway windows, and setting flowers onto hallway windows can even be grounds for having your lease canceled.And so it continues for pages. In less accomplished hands these repetitions would prove tiresome, but the voice here perfectly meshes with the narrator’s desire to get things right, captures his tendency to get lost in mundanities and life’s day-to-day minutiae, and also reflects his mind’s slow dissolution.
As much as the novel is a series of progressions from one trolley-stop to another, many of its encounters are driven by digressions, that is, characters are likely to deliver tangent-filled monologues that go all over the place. Jonke’s meeting with the sculptor in “Furniture Show—Main Promenade in the Prater” is as stunning as it is baffling, where the sculptor’s speechifying is marked by constant qualifications, apologies, and all kinds of circuitous asides.
The narrator is plagued by his dreams. At one moment he dreamed he saw his great-aunt flying over hills “powered by two gigantic wings of a nose out of her shoulder blades.” But as bizarre as his dreams are, his waking life is sometimes just as vivid and overwhelming:
I look down at the dark spots with which the sidewalks and streets here are strewn, as if I were being drawn to the ground by these faint patterns of glinting mica eyes in the paving material.At first I believe they are the remaining marks of large raindrops fallen out of the night onto the sidewalks and streets. But when the spots have not been absorbed by the heat of midday, I can only think that the sidewalks and streets are constantly being spit on in profusion by the burning sky of the given day or much likely, by the good people of Vienna themselves, the latter speculation making it no surprise at all to me that these blotches never disappear.
We find the narrator increasingly losing control of his hold on reality, where at one point he asks: Is it not altogether possible that the course of our life in its entirety is determined by nothing other than an unremitting and regrettable or even lamentable captivity founded on a curious aggregation of altogether ceaseless and incredibly unremitting post-hypnotic suggestions?But it is the novel’s penultimate chapter wherein we observe the fullness of Jonke’s imaginative, visionary writing. In “Caryatids and Atlantes—Vienna’s First Guest Workers,” the narrator discovers that he is able to commune with stone sculptures. He learns that they “apprehended” time “as a physically concrete reality” and that they “required eternity-dimensional masses of time clouds” in order to exist. But their relationship isn’t one-sided: he teaches them about sleep and dreams. His “sleep performances came to be esteemed” by the stone sculptures as a
wondrously exotic, serenity-inducing form of Gesamtkunstwerk or all-encompassing work of art matchlessly flung high aloft by [him], in all its incalculable vastness, into the air of those day-nights and night-days, aided by the sheer force of [his] individual personality.It is an imaginative end to a highly experimental and visionary novel.
And this hasn’t even covered the narrator’s grappling with suicidal thoughts, his synesthetic experiences where he often feels like he were hearing with his eyes, his repeated anthropomorphizing of the elements and inanimate objects, or how the narrative, even with its many bifurcations, still closely resembles the structure of the hero’s quest wherein the hero meets and overcomes numerous challenges and emerges victorious. The System of Vienna, with its commanding cadences, self-absorbed insistence, and entrancing repetitions, not to mention its childlike surrender to fantasy, is boundless fiction that both puzzles and entertains." - John Madera

"When Austrian dramatist, poet, and author Gert Jonke died from pancreatic cancer at age 62 last year, British journalist Guy Dammann lamented that he passed just as his readership was finally beginning to match his reputation: "At its height his reputation was grounded principally on the widespread misapprehension about the severe difficulty of his writing. Despite winning the first ever Ingeborg Bachmann prize in 1977, and later the Franz Kafka and Berlin Literature prizes, among numerous others, people tended to respect rather than read Jonke. Which makes it all the more ironic that, just as his reputation was once again on the up—a resurgence based this time on a real and growing readership—he has died."
The resurgence Dammann refers to was presumably taking place among Jonke’s German-language readership. But English-speakers got some help catching up on Jonke’s quirky brilliance when the Dalkey Archive Press published Vincent Kling’s highly enjoyable translation of Jonke’s novella-in-stories, The System of Vienna.
This richly imaginative book fits fifteen chapters into ninety-eight pages (minus an elegant afterword by Kling). Most chapters in this autobiographical novella focus on a spot in Vienna, and they’re recalled in sequence from the narrator’s birth through adulthood as he meets odd people who strive to convey knowledge about politics, society, love, and human perception. Jonke’s writing isn’t difficult, though his sentences can stretch on into multi-page masterpieces, and he’s a fan of word games and surreal imagery. But beneath these formal surfaces and experimental style (some have called Jonke a “text composer”), these stories are frequently tender and funny; for all the book’s curiosities and through-the-looking-glass moments, System proves Jonke was that rare thing: a huge, rebellious talent with tremendous heart.
In the first chapter, “Beginnings in a Small Southern Austrian City,” a mere two pages in length, Jonke chats about “myself and my academic development” as if he were a well-known author, using a punchy, casual tone that is comforting yet deceptive (considering the philosophical flourishes in the stories ahead). Regarding his birth in “the district hospital” in Klagenfurt, Jonke tells “as you probably already know” of how his mother trudges alone through the cold and tries to get in the side door of the hospital, but can’t due to regulations upheld by the night porter. After enough berating—”why else would strict instructions like these exist if they weren’t important”—the porter relents and lets her in to have her baby, the final sentence reading, “After that I—as the concluding expression goes—’turned up in no time,’ and, bringing the story to its end, there’s a description of my skin, at that point completely blue.”
This tiny monologue sets the tone and lays out a major theme of the book. Beneath the ensuing layers of the narrative, using a close or distant voice that changes from story to story, a deliberately unsettling playfulness is in high gear.
Jonke aims to convey the idea that this kind of rebellious play is a serious skill people must nurture in themselves if they’re ever going to keep the world’s inanity from ruining their spirits. After all, as “Beginnings” shows in its precise and offhand way, even mothers giving birth in small towns will be made to suffer fools in a society more concerned with rules than well-being. It’s as if Jonke is saying, Make me wait, will you? Keep me out in the cold until I’m blue—before I’m even born, will you? All right then, you fuckers. It’s on.
Jonke worked this sort of lemme at ‘em territory at greater length in his social satire Geometric Regional Novel, first published in English in hardcover in 1994 and then in paperback in 2000 by the Dalkey Archive. As a classically trained pianist, Jonke also wrote about music (and based stories on musical forms), as shown in his other books available in English, Blinding Moment: Four Pieces About Composers, and the novel Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique.
As System continues, Jonke’s self-as-narrator grows up. “Childhood in the Country” brims with happy and Eden-like language. As if helping to get the reader in shape for the enormous sentences to come, Jonke offers this relatively short gem (cut in half here), describing his early wonder at the natural world:
I spent the hot summers back in those years mostly at the house of a great-aunt in the country, though, where I would sink down into her garden as if into a subtropical rain forest, in the shadows of the larkspur along the trailers and stalks of vegetables with pods and hulls bursting open in the heat, planted all the way out to the twilit place where menacing stands of horsetail and hemlock woods lined a pondoceanswamp in the sour-smelling surf of which the afternoons coursed along . . .
That “pondoceanswamp” shows Jonke satirizing mile-long, German compound words, and the final portion of the quote contains a common Jonke technique wherein units of time, in this case “afternoons,” become objects moved by the mind through metaphor, where they can be manipulated in the physical world, side by side with our bodies, just as vulnerable to being moved as we are by nature and chance.
When the book moves from nature into Vienna, however, the action frequently retreats into his mind as microadventures in thought. As the narrator ages he becomes justifiably confused by the foolishness and emptiness and banality of modern urban life. As if to dramatize this, “Wholesale Fish Dealer by the Danube Canal” spins in annoying circles, forcing readers to ask, Why all this stuff about the guy not being a fish dealer? Three pages later, Jonke answers: “Therein was to be sought the reason and the cause of why things are sometimes, mostly sometimes, rather often, sometimes rather often, mostly sometimes rather often, mostly rather often, sometimes mostly mostly, mostly mostly not as they should be.” Jonke isn’t making a point so much as observing the follies of human communication; to Jonke’s great credit, that distinction—observing, not teaching—is carefully maintained throughout the book.
This approach, which lets the reader reach conclusions without unnecessary moralizing or preaching, lends power and conviction to the author’s driving belief: we’re alive and we’re adventurous and the world so often thwarts us in our pursuits to understand more and see more.
Yet if there are moments of humanity here, there’s also plenty of formalism. In “Attempt to Break Out to Klosterneuberg,” Jonke lets the story end like a poem, with short line breaks and all lower-case letters. At another point Jonke adds extra spaces between the letters of each word in a key phrase. (And Dalkey does an admirable job of integrating these typographical devices.) Far from being cold puzzles, though, these tactics mirror the daily challenges of perception and communication that people face. And his use of repetition and layers, as with music, mirror the emotional sequence of how we experience things, remember them, and assemble memories.
Jonke does all this while keeping his readers’ best interest in mind. His chapters are compressed without being impenetrably dense, and he uses standard plot elements to frame his greater ambitions, making something new and surprising in the process. This fusion of the traditional and the experimental is exemplified in the wonderful epistolary story, “Jörger Strasse Prelude Hernals Beltway Fugue,” where Jonke tucks a moment of human vulnerability into a complex narrative structure, in this case a son caring for his elderly father.
“Fugue” and the next two stories form a thematic downward arc that turns abruptly heavenward at the end of the novel. A nadir is reached in the trio’s middle story, with the narrator’s suicidal tendencies in “Danube River Bridge.” Here Jonke’s language demonstrates that he takes depression seriously, even as comedy threatens:
[I] would often walk from bridge to bridge along the banks of the Danube . . . looking down into the river’s eyes as they drifted past below, and then spitting down into the river before I resumed my crossing. To this day I am absolutely certain that my spitting down into the water from the bridge was in no way connected with its bringing good luck, as a simplistic folk belief would have it, but was rather a kind of substitute for my not spitting my bodily self in its entirety over the railing along the firmament. Instead of a complete plunge into the river, then, I let drift downward just a few words or sentences, now rendered unutterable through liquefaction, dissolved in my oral cavity from keeping silent so long . . .
The sadness bottoms out then surges upward into the glad but gloomy romantic fantasy, “Caryatids and Atlantes—Vienna’s First Guest Workers,” which concludes the trio. The story shows Jonke giving fame the finger, imagining himself as “a creative sleep artist,” not a writer hounded by the urge to self-promote but “a sleep interpreter engaged with the completed creation.” Throughout this trio Jonke repeats phrases like chords, whole pages of narration stuttering ahead upon rising and falling rhythms, using musicality as a guide for word choice.
This search for music and freedom in language yields eloquent results at the end of the “Klosterneuberg.” With its broken lines, like a poem, even in translation we see how the words on the page had to yield to what Jonke was pursuing. It’s dreamy stuff that lets his adult narrator feel momentarily ageless. Jonke risks sounding terribly sentimental, but because of the risk he achieves instead the defiant tone of a soul too proud to let time have its way.
and I do go away at once, not without having said goodbye; but no, I don’t go, I run, ride back at once on one of those days that have ended before they even began,
on this eveninglikemorningishly afternoonnight;
in fact, this day hasn’t even dawned yet." - Matthew Jakubowski

«READ (red) v. – 1. To comprehend or take in the meaning of (something written or printed). 2. To utter or render aloud (something written or printed).—Oxford English Dictionary
Consider the above entry from the OED. Readers applying the second definition to The System of Vienna, by Gert Jonke, will, I believe, more readily meet the condition of the first. Jonke’s prose is fun to read, but not always easy to understand. It helps to ‘render aloud’ his words, much the same way that, say, Finnegans Wake is served by recitation, all the better to hear Joyce’s musicality. With Jonke, an oral reading brings out the obsessive vocal twitter of Vienna’s denizens such as this one that we meet early on in a chapter entitled “Autumn Mist—Rose Hill.”
I bet you believe I’m a sculptor, the sculptor said, but that’s a mistake. You believe I’m standing here under this tree and busying myself with admittedly unusual sculpture, but that is not at all how things are, no, and that you are now standing here beside me is also purely a matter of your imagination, just as it goes without saying that we’re always quite naturally located somewhere other then circumstances would make it appear, so listen carefully, for in all probability we are located in no place other, of yes indeed, than in a—how do you say it—more or less enclosed space, a room that has a suspiciously familiar appearance to us, you won’t think it possible, but what are we doing here after all, well now you won’t even believe it….
A semi-colon appears a few lines later, but it’s a full page and half before a period hits us. Jonke’s translator, Vincent Kling, who must be signaled out for his bravery and commitment in translating Vienna, notes in his afterward that Jonke creates “clausal monstrosities that postpone the verb for so long that it sometimes never appears.”
If this makes Jonke sound intimidating, let me assure you that The System of Vienna, once you discover its pattern, is entirely accessible. This late Austrian novelist shares Joyce’s desire to experiment with the novel’s structure and language, while simultaneously launching an exploration of his homeland. Just as Joyce walked us through the streets of Dublin, Jonke opens the door on Vienna and the nature of the Austrian character. His novel stakes its claim early, announcing loudly that the reader is no longer in the cozy arena of “narrative structure” or “character” or “linear arcs.” Jonke does not mock these literary conventions, but applies them in his own fashion, and holds up the results for the reader to inspect.
While it can certainly be called “experimental,” Vienna offers a pair of familiar organizing principles for its slim 98 pages. Autobiography (ostensibly) is the first, with Jonke asking the reader to take it on faith that no matter how fantastic his narrative becomes, it’s all taken from real events. (Although his first paragraph promises to explain his “methodology… and academic development” he typically never gets around to it.) The second device is a tour of the titular city by streetcar, with each chapter a different stop not only in the city but also in the author’s life, from birth to death. Each stop, while part of the greater city, is self-contained. The author even notes that the segments were published separately as stories (one chapter, “Danube River Bridge,” first appeared on an album cover). There is no “plot” to speak of, even as the segments trace the linear pattern of life. You don’t read The System of Vienna so much as you hop on and hop off the trolley car, admiring what you like and taking pictures were it suits you, and so, too, might you skip around the remainder of this review, as it reflects how I found myself reading Jonke’s book.
I took great pleasure in reading Jonke’s first entry, “Beginnings In A Small Southern Austrian City,” as he relates the story of his mother, pregnant with him, arriving at a hospital in the middle of a frigid winter night only to find, “that she wasn’t permitted to enter the hospital by that door, but by the main entrance instead, because it wasn’t the usual practice to enter the hospital by any of the side entrances, and moreover it wasn’t even possible to open this particular one, whereas the main entrance, on the other hand, was open all night long, so she could certainly go in that way if she absolutely had to….”
And so on for half the page, until the disgruntled guard finally opens the side gate and lets in the expecting mother. Represented in prose, this hyperactive bureaucracy takes on an element of the fantastic and ridiculous; we who live in the modern world may be all too familiar with the channels and paperwork and hierarchy and adherence to the rule of law that can overwhelm common sense and human decency. Jonke’s first book, Geometric Regional Novel, tackled this head on, the best example in that work being a form that needs to be filled out in order to take a walk in the woods. (Sample questions: “Where are you going?” “What do you want there?” “Why don’t you want to go somewhere else?” “Why don’t you just stay home?”)
Lambasting these systems is a literary tradition. Kafka pioneered the method, and Jonke is one of his many heirs.
Tragic comedy reigns supreme in Jonke’s world. Each time he (or his fictional alter ego) introduces us to a new area of the city it’s not more then a few paragraphs before a neurotic voice of worry or anger or frustration at the Austrian way of conducting everyday life takes over. A stopover at Nussdorf station becomes an opportunity to observe the pissoirs (public urinals) and how “yellow lime clings to the tar paper walls, torn prophylactics are often found in the grates over the drains, the drains are often stopped up so the whole pissoir is flooded with diluted urine… while all around… people have scratched their names and their depictions of human sex organs—transfigured through the simple grace of unsophisticated folk art.”
With the chapter “In the Course of My Courses…” Jonke admits that his years “spent so far at the University of Vienna have been a fantastic fraud, an unparalleled swindle…” Academic lectures are given “over and over, exactly the same, word for word, every two years since the end of the Second World War…” and when he substitutes for a professor, the man insists on Jonke using a metronome set to the tempo of the “Waldstein” sonata “so as to be able to execute his text with authenticity before the empty seats in the lecture hall.”
Home offers the author no comfort either. In the chapter “Hernals-Style of Household Management,” Jonke feels forced to adhere to said style, in which he does not “put flowers out onto the hallway windows any more… because it makes no sense… it’s not just senseless, but impossible… as it can be grounds for having your lease cancelled.” Neighbors are suspicious and “take their doormats into their apartments… so to be completely sure no one can steal their doormats.”
Then there is the chapter “Wholesale Fish Dealer By The Danube Canal.” Here, Jonke is subjected to the tirade of the said dealer who is convinced he is directing all of Austrian politics from his fish stall. “I’m the real Chancellor,” he says. “Everything proceeds… according to my decisions… If you believe, that politics are run by those people who call themselves political figures, then you have fallen victim to a serious mistake! Because for those who call themselves political figures, being in charge of politics represents a mere deception, a tremendous cover-up perpetrated on the public.”
Jonke and his characters are building fictions about themselves, perhaps to mask the true misery behind provincial life. It’s both sad and funny. Everyone is swallowed up in their nervous, self-made contortions of invention.
I found it impossible to read Jonke without thinking of his countryman, Thomas Bernhard. Both men have perfected the art of the Austrian flavored rant. I find Jonke funnier, more playful and easier to read, whereas if you don’t tackle Bernhard’s unbroken brick walls of prose from the first page, you can easily get lost. Jonke is the playful sprite to Bernhard’s grumpy wizard.» - Matthew Mercier

 Gert Jonke, Homage to Czerny. Dalkey Archive, 2008.


"No sooner is an (almost) new writer introduced to us than he disappears. Homage to Czerny, by the Austrian Gert Jonke, was published by Dalkey Archive in November; two months later the author died. Jonke’s foothold in English letters had been precarious, and belated. His very first book appeared — again from Dalkey, as Geometrical Regional Novel — in 2000, over three decades after it was published. With this new book, his second to come out in English, the gap has been maintained almost exactly. At this rate we can expect to see Jonke’s later works in the 2030s.
This doesn’t seem quite right. Born in 1946, the same year as Elfriede Jelinek, Jonke wrote novels, plays and radio plays. Music was evidently important to him, his novels including The Distant Sound (taking its title from Franz Schreker’s best known opera) and The Head of George Frederick Handel. Homage to Czerny is, of course, a musical book, too. It comprises two pieces, related in length roughly by the ratio 2:1 (an octave) and both featuring a composer as the rather passive narrator — so passive that he could easily be the same character in both, though need not be. The longer piece is set at a fantastical party in a fantastical city with quite a number of fantastical characters; the shorter has the narrator and his brother stuck in the attic of a music school, with 111 decrepit grand pianos, this being the opus number of Beethoven’s last sonata.
Jonke titled this curious pairing of stories after the Op.299 of the great piano pedagogue and Beethoven pupil Carl Czerny: School of Velocity. Dalkey’s renaming is fair enough, though it is a pity that we lose the word ‘velocity’, which seems important to Jonke’s thinking and our response to it. His party piece, as it were, starts out with a couple of nice conceits. Anton Diabelli (by no means the only character to share a name with someone else) has decked his gardens with paintings that reproduce the scenes they block (never mind what problems of perspective this might entail), and has also determined that his annual soirée will unfold in every detail exactly as it did the year before. Here, one might think, are ideas ripe for unmasking. But no, Jonke whips on through a sequence of bizarre dialogues, in which Diabelli’s guests reveal themselves as having little familiarity with the city in which they live or with common probability. Buildings, one person thinks, may be made of smoke. No, others contend, the smoke falls from chimneys, which, however high they may be built, can never quite catch the wind, which rises to escape them. The most appealing character is the painter of the substitute landscapes, who, our narrator is advised, should be approached only when his eyes are closed, because when they are open he will be observing and will not tolerate disturbance. Even so, caution is needed. When his eyes are closed he may easily be asleep.
Perhaps everyone is asleep in this bizarre tale, though there is nothing dreamy about Jonke’s language (as translated by Jean M. Snook), which is clear and exact, even when evoking the mysterious, magical music the narrator finds emanating from a pond in Diabelli’s garden:
...I had the sensation of overlapping wandering clouds of notes and gathering mists of tones that shifted into one another, surging forward and back, a very quiet, barely audible, devastatingly beautiful music, such as I had never experienced before, very high, but at the same time very low, agreeably subdued, slightly blurry gossamer-thin aerial chordal expanses...So it is in the other piece, which bears a separate Czernian title, Gradus ad Parnassum. The narrator’s brother here is a Bernhardesque ranter, but on a small scale, and the piece again is nicely and neatly odd. Its conservatory — with an attic full of disused pianos: culture turned to junk — might be an allegory of the current state of the world (in 1977, when the book was originally published, or now), of Austria (ditto) or of a person (ditto, too), this last suspicion echoing through the closing lines:
...for a long time now I’ve barely been able to feel that I was a person at all, but instead only a (more or less miserable) condition that was being communicated to me via my head..." - Paul Griffiths
"The premise of HOMAGE is that two siblings are preparing for their annual garden party. They hang paintings that are perfect realism, mimicking the scene behind it so exactly that it seems they had simply hung an empty frame. But the brother is walking around taking photos of the setup and comparing them with photos from last year's party so that they can exactly reproduce it; not simply a reproduction, but a
REPETITION OF THE PARTY that we had last year on the same day at the same time. It's supposed to be exactly the same party again . . . The same guests, said Johanna, are going to have the same conversations at the same time and tell the same stories they did last year, with the same movements, the same gestures, same looks, same sentiments.Except they haven't mentioned this to any of the guests.
We have to see if it's possible to establish a congruity of chronologically sequential feelings, sensations, thoughts, relationships, inferences, and insights, explained Diabelli--possibly not just conguity, but identity. Don't you see what we're after? Whether people can still feel, sense, think, experience, and discover exactly the same things one year later.
And so the novel begins. The central word/concept is obviously "Repetition". As I read these passages I immediately thought of Kierkegaard's book REPETITION (subtitled "A Venture in Experimental Psychology). Yeah, really tough, I know. Except there's more than simply the word Repetition. It's the entire concept of attempting to recreate the exact same "feelings, sensations, thoughts, relationships, inferences, and insights" that echoes (repeats?) Kierkegaard's character's return to Berlin in an attempt to relive exactly his time there the previous year. Whether or not Jonke had Kierkegaard's book in mind at all, it's a striking coincidence that got my attention.
HOMAGE TO CZERNY, what with the siblings' exact painting of the entire garden, recalls for me Borges's stories like "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and "On Exactitude in Science", also obviously stories dealing with the idea of perfect repetition." - Josh Maday

"Homage to Czerny is a two-part novel, its Studies in Virtuoso Technique essentially two different stories, episodes narrated by Fritz, a composer - "one of our most promising", his old professor claims - who also has a serious binge-drinking problem. The premise of the first is brilliant, and the second quite good too, but Jonke doesn't focus quite enough on these (and falls back too readily on his narrator's alcohol-dependency-caused confusion to present the surreality of the situations).
In the first story, The Presence of Memory, Fritz show up early at the annual garden party the photographer Anton Diabelli and his sister Johanna throw at the height of summer. They let him in on a secret: the plan is to duplicate the previous year's party. Without telling the guests, the hosts hope to arrange everything so that:
The same guests, said Johanna, are going to have the same conversations at the same time and tell the same stories they did last year, with the same movements, the same gestures, same looks, same sentiments.Fritz has his doubts, but the siblings are excited about their experiment:
We have to see if it's possible to establish a congruity of chronologically sequential feelings, sensations, thoughts relationships, inferences, and insights, explained Diabelli -- possibly not just congruity, but identity. Don't you see what we're after ? Whether people can still feel, sense, think, experience, and discover exactly the same things one year later.Yes, it's déjà-vu all over again... But it's a clever premise, and begins well, with a set of oil paintings hung in the trees all around - oil paintings that: "portrayed exactly those parts of the garden that were covered by the surfaces of the respective picture" - so exactly, in fact, that people would constantly confuse reality and the paintings and not be aware which was which.
Instead of focussing on repetition and echoes, however, Jonke then describes the party for the most part just as any other party might unfold -- though with more than its share of surreal conversation and confusing events. It's an entertaining send-up of (Austrian) society, but digressions on, for example, the mysterious smokestacks in the north of the city (constantly made higher, to no avail) or the calmly related horror stories of how: "people are still getting swallowed up by the bog with alarming regularity" and then the more bizarre turns of dialogue (a truffle... no it's a Brusssel sprout, bounding away at the buffet, "and now it's starting to flutter", lifting off and flying away) make for uneven entertainment (admittedly: exactly as such parties generally are).
Music plays a role throughout, and at one point Fritz desperately tries to capture what he's heard - futilely, since: "it was music performed on unknown, unmanufacturable instruments, a music that had to be thought." Complete abstraction - and yet it has been performed there. At the same time, a writer jots down a story and then insists on reading it, but it is too much - too close to their reality - for the assembled audience, leading them to turn on him.
Fritz comes to consider the party a success, at least in terms of achieving exactly what the hosts had set out to do, but Jonke turns the tables nicely in the end, too. As already pointed out to him earlier, Fritz doesn't always see things exactly like everyone else does:
But I really did experience everything exactly as I've told you, I replied.
Yes, I'll gladly believe you, said Johanna, because even reality is often a good invention.
The second story, Gradus ad parnassum finds Fritz and his brother visiting the Conservatory where they had studied music, and winding up getting locked up in the attic, among 111 pianos. Their old professor - now the institute's director - and a caretaker find them, but it takes a while to get everything sorted out.
The setting and situation allow for some interesting riffs on failure and expectation, with Fritz's brother Otto, once also among the most promising of piano students, reduced to being a piano mover. He's very successful and has built up a big business, but obviously it's a far cry from the artistic career everyone had imagined for him. Meanwhile, Fritz is a complete alcoholic - and, as Otto observes: "you're projecting your predicament onto your environment".
The use of alcoholism (or mind-altering-drugs abuse) as a crutch by writers, allowing them to blur the lines between the real and imagined and hallucinated, as well as of memory and forgetting, is a cheap trick that's hard to utilize effectively. It may be a valid issue to raise and use in a story, but especially with such potentially rich material as Jonke has in the first story it's a shame that he has to let it sink into an alcoholic haze and stupour.
There's something of Thomas Bernhard in Homage to Czerny, but much of that is due simply to the cruelly accurate description of a certain slice of Austrian society - artists and those more or less claiming to be cultured (bureaucrats and doctors here) - from the 1960s and 70s. (There's also the musical angle, which Jonke shares with Bernhard as well.)
The writing is sharp and often amusing, even as some of the events spin slightly out of control, and it's an intriguing entertainment - but especially in The Presence of Memory doesn't do all one might have hoped for." - The Complete Review
"Ack! That title! It’s enough to send you running from the bookshop screaming in horror at the awful pretentiousness of translated European fiction.
Don't! Austrian playwright Gert Jonke’s novel (with its even more off-putting subtitle, Studies in Virtuoso Technique) is a fantastically madcap exploration of perception and reality which circles round and round before landing somewhere equally odd. You won’t find any answers to the big questions of life here, but you’ll have a good time (and even a laugh) as Jonke’s wild vision unravels before your eyes.
The novel actually comprises two parts. In the first, The Presence of Memory, a brother and sister decide that they want to replicate their previous year’s garden party in every way. They commission paintings of the garden, which they hang in the exact space represented by them, and they invite the same people. Only the siblings and the sceptical narrator know of the scheme:
‘You’re trying to change memories back into the present moment, I said, but the laws of nature won’t allow that.
'The laws of nature, Johanna replied, are you really talking about the laws of nature? Isn’t it a law of nature that not only has next to nothing changed in the past year but in fact that everything has remained just the same, and is exactly as unbearable, unjust, and miserable now as then?’
Thus the party begins. The city’s finest artists and administrators are assembled: an undertaker who buries artists for free; an architect whose insane asylums likewise admit artists gratis; a city gardener and a building inspector – Mr Jacksch and Mr Jagusch – who, like a sort of anti-Thompson and Thomson from Hergé’s Tintin books, can’t agree on whether the weather one summer was hot and dry even though the ground was soaking wet or vice versa; a poet who repeatedly demonstrates that he can empty a bottle of beer faster by drinking it than by pouring it on the floor.
And so it goes on, the stories and conversations looping and flowing in a mesmeric and curious (yet somehow completely normal) way. Like the instruments of an orchestra, each character comes to the fore, then retreats, making room for another as the symphony proceeds, until we find ourselves recognising the initial refrain at the end of the piece.
The second story, Gradus Ad Parnassum, is just as odd. Two brothers revisiting the Conservatory where they studied music ‘years, much more than a decade, in fact almost twenty years’ ago, get stuck in an attic of abandoned pianos when they fail to find the lift door from which they emerged. That Jonke doesn’t merely say ‘twenty years ago’ sums up the remarkable nature of his writing, which plays continuously with our perceptions and expectations.
First published in 1977 as Schule der Geläufigkeit, Homage to Czerny reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s more recent The Unconsoled in its ability to utterly displace the reader in an illogical world that nevertheless makes sense; also, the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day (it certainly shares its humour); and filmmaker Stephen Poliakoff’s obsession with photographs and what they tell us about the past and the present. I don’t know whether Jonke has been an influence on any of these artists, but his crazy slant on reality deserves to be read in a world that is becoming increasingly unreal by the day." - James Smith 

 
Gert Jonke, Geometric Regional Novel. Dalkey Archive, 2000.

"Geometric Regional Novel is an innovative satire on the process by which bureaucracy and official regimentation insidiously pervade society. In a deadpan, pseudo-scientific tone, the nameless narrator takes us on a tour of a bizarre village whose inhabitants lead such habitual, regulated lives that they resemble elements in a mathematical equation. The traditional village leaders—the mayor, the priest, the teacher — uphold the status quo with comically exaggerated attention to ceremony and trivia, and nearly every aspect of life has been codified. Contrasting with the mathematical descriptions of village life are flashes of colorful, surrealistic writing, exemplifying the power of the imagination to counter the monotonous routines of daily life."

"When the book arrived I read it from cover to cover without moving off my sofa. Jonke's rendering here of a ridiculous 'region' where science and law are so askew it is as if someone has taken a smear eraser to the city's face was something I had been looking to read for a long time coming. From page to page, literally, I was in awe of how Jonke was able to meld so many high concept ideas together into a narrative so immensely readable and downright funny. For every inch in that he is innovative (with paragraphs that recurse on their own logic in the mist of themselves, weird Frank Stanford-imagery of bulls and hollow trees and bridges that stretch on and on, sudden 'new law' attached to the community in the midst of its rendering that continue to skew the perspective, descriptions of traveling artists performing impossible tasks, etc.) he is also downright amusing and hilarious. This isn't one of those books that are so brash in their innovation that the reader is made to slog along: every page is literally one you find yourself want to read again as soon as it is over, if not to see how the hell he did it so smoothly, but just for the pure pleasure of it.
I could go on about the new new of the executions made in this book, such as the absolutely amazing questionnaire that is placed in the middle the book as a thing that must be filled out by the geometric region's citizens who wish to cross through a forest (before Barthelme did it with SNOW WHITE, as well as elsewhere). His employment of double-speak questions and Kafkaesque bureaucracy in form I literally had to stop and read aloud. I've never seen a questionnaire in a book work so well, and that is not to mention the other strange and amazing tactics employed here: the diagrams, the weird city ordinances, the disjoined post-fairy-tale language, the amazing logic, and etc.
I find it pretty interesting, too, that this book was originally published in German in 1969, predating Calvino's INVISIBLE CITIES by three years, and pretty much accomplishing everything Calvino set out to do in that book, but tenfold, and with even more zeal and audacity I think.
That more people in English do not know this book is something that should change. Fans of other curious books in such as a Jesse Ball, Matthew Derby, Brian Evenson, and Kelly Link, as well as Borges, Robert Pinget, Beckett, and others of the magic weird camp should most certainly check him out. It's literally been a thing I've not been able to get out of my mind, a book I've continued to carry with me every day since I read it just to touch and hold and open just to look. It's gotten so into my mind that literally the same day I started writing a book out of the mind Jonke's awoke in me, and haven't been able to stop fixating on it since." - Blake Butler

"In her contribution to a collection of critical essays, Gert Jonke's fellow dramatist and novelist Elfriede Jelinek compares his writing to an ant farm excitedly being displayed to Donald Duck by his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. They are thrilled by the intricate, functional passageways, the labyrinthine tunnels, the surprisingly elaborate network of crosscuts and interconnections the ants have made, all visible, to the boys' fascinated gaze, through the glass walls of the container. Donald does not respond in the same spirit of captivation or even appreciation, though; he is dismayed, even horrified. Not that he's afraid of ants, Jelinek notes, but he’s worried about the mess they might make if they get loose in his tidy room or in the farm itself. A different idea of order from the one the boys have been observing blinds him to any sense of the daunting but beautiful complexity before him. The nephews, receptive and alert, are looking directly at the right thing; Donald, praiseworthy in his desire for neat surroundings, is too conventional and skittish, so he misses both the point and the beauty (Jelinek 17).
Most readers, Jelinek implies, even good ones, are like Donald, by no means imperceptive to the orderly arrangement of literature, intelligently able to appreciate the expected sequence of beginning, middle, and end as applied to a discernible story line—even allowing for those parts to be lightly transposed—but able and willing to dedicate their effort only to structures to which they bring prior understanding. Any alternative to their prefabricated sense of proper arrangement is not just a challenge, but a threat. They'll try a stretch, but a slight one only. Readers who have made their way through the adventure of reading Gert Jonke, though—anything, in German or in English, for the first or the hundredth time—and who have found their way to this casebook are more likely to resemble the nephews than the uncle. Especially if they are new to Jonke, they marvel at the beauty of a complex patterning that they can see intuitively, but may need some help articulating." - Vincent Kling

"By the time our narrator, enmeshed in the fate of time and place, performs the keenly anticipated but endlessly postponed crossing of the village square in Gert Jonke's Geometric Regional Novel, the elaborate social order of the novel has re-duced freedom and logical comprehension to a program of predetermined re-sponses founded on deceitful subterfuges of communal exploitation. As the so-cial order unfolds across the whole plot, the structural arrangement sets up cer-tain characteristic features and devices—we stumble across them every few feet—that constitute the poetics of Geometric Regional Novel and so compose its meaning, both its substance and significance. Yet, all the while, it would appear as if the action of the novel were in no way progressing, as if, for some reason, the movement of the plot were being restrained, almost as if we, as outsiders, were being disbarred by some social force within the village from understanding the culture of the world unfolding before us. Jonke establishes a village for us, a social structure whose movement through time is represented in a fragmentary way in order to dramatize the psychological debility imposed upon its occupants while revealing to us certain truths about our own social situation.
Visitors to Jonke's village, after participating in perhaps only the first quarter of the novel, may feel the need to beat a hasty retreat, to regain those foothills by which they had entered, and escape. Sadly, though, "Before you reach the foot-hills, you have to cross the river" (Jonke 30) and wade through an endless wash of narrative derivatives, infinitely more hostile to our understanding than Hera-clitus' amorphous and indifferent stream could ever be. Indeed, flung into Jonke's unkind and untimely meditation, we must either sink or swim, with no assistance offered from any direction, unless, of course, we are willing to bribe the bridgekeeper. As we flail about, trying not to drown in the pathological grumblings of the almost inhuman citizenry, trying not to be seen, because we aren't supposed to be seen, we are led unawares into a space where language lacks meaning, where neither light nor truth exists, where, ultimately, all exis-tence in this remarkably absurd situation is almost too tragic for words. Not tragic enough, though, for in fact the social structure of the village is such that no tragedy could ever be staged, much less understood. Aristotle and the tradi-tional discourse of tragedy have no place in this village, where it is impossible for an individual to promote the common good fortune of all. It is equally im-possible, therefore, for an individual to accumulate an excess of pride through success in pursuing that enterprise. There is, then, no opportunity for anyone to establish a situation that will ultimately solicit its own reversal, that will prompt recognition of an imprudent drive for personal advantage, misconstrued as con-cern for the welfare of all. In other words, there can be no tragic fall whose oc-currence enables the continued evolution, the continued growth and develop-ment of a society and its culture. At the same time, just as Geometric Regional Novel lacks the basic elements of tragedy, so too does it lack the necessary re-quirements of comedy, whereby a community undergoes a moral apotheosis and regeneration through the recognition and removal of social ill or vice performed by some impudent member whose actions had earlier led the community astray. Within the village there is no one to correct or enlighten, no one whose instruction could educate the reader/visitor about the costs of lust, so that when we come together at the work's conclusion, all are made aware of the value of mutual satisfaction. One may say that here there is no place whatever for an individual agent to inhabit, no communal "mirror on which to dwell," in Elizabeth Bishop's words. One might even say that "Hier ist kein warum," to use a chilling totalitarian phrase, that any "Why?" is absolutely out of our hands, and that here the only law of the land is further stabilization of the power structure. This village merely exists, regardless of faculty, an inert entity, where inertia, being completely controlled, is as irrelevant as any other manifestation of energy.
Jonke's villagers, unable to recognize the oppression they are subject to,are incapable of any expression other than neutral description, pathos, or the un-controllable, delirious hysterics of the narrator, and seem to be suffering from the symptoms of what, in Nietzschean terms, might be described as "Last Man Syndrome." Here, for fear of spoiling their digestion, the villagers profess happiness and blink: "Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into the madhouse" (Nietzsche, Zarathustra). Besides this miserable affliction of imposed homogeneity, the novel is deficient in any sort of any identifiable or traditional plot line. Plot is a teleological construction, always moving toward some end, so that each element executes some function in the satisfaction of our "desire to see an enigma or problem resolved" (Culler). This "enigma or problem" is the one complete motivated action of Aristotelian thought, where the incidents of the text form a cycle of condensation, accumulation, and precipitation, a constant flux of establishment and movement between character disposition and decisive action. Neither is the direct cause or effect of the other, but we must recognize and un-derstand that
all human actions that are worked out to the end, passing through the unforeseeable contingencies of a "world we never made," follow a similar course: the conscious purpose with which they start is redefined after each unforeseen contingency is suffered; and at the end, in the light of hindsight, we see the truth of what we have been doing. (Fergusson 13)Instead of linear development, this novel appears to be structured so as to perform simultaneously two parallel functions, neither of which works to expli-cate either character or action. The more basic function of the text is to structure the village as an immediate and tangible social world, something for us to read. However, the primary function is to construct our own world for us within the confines of this village. Jonke establishes a concentrated, microscopic recon-struction of our world, so that we do not just observe outwardly but are forced to examine ourselves thoroughly as well. We are called to measure our movements against those of the villagers and bear witness to the effects of social control and its sometimes imperceptible impact on our lives.
The two parallel levels converge continually upon one another in the form of an informal conversation between the reader as visitor to the village and the narrator, the two voices that discuss the action of the text, the crossing of the village square. We quickly become dumbfounded at our inability either to progress across the square or to understand why we cannot. It seems as if the narrator operates with no regard for narrative conventions. Narrative progression is re-placed with dialectic posturing, where we, as readers, must repeatedly request of the narrator to move the plot forward, must ask if we can "walk across the village square", only to be persistently dissuaded from our affinity toward conven-tional plot movement. The novel’s disregard of our reliance on convention quickly institutes itself as the standard when, in the course of the dialogue, the narrator states,
yes i remember you said
—i suppose we'll have to wait for the night listen as he with his assis-tants
and drummer leaves the inn very late the steps on the pavement
the steps in the grass they'll probably also light the lamp hang it in
front of the tent who knows they might forget to put the lamp out and
its glow will creep into the faces of our sleep.
The entire text of the novel is suffused with ambiguous dialogic terms,unsubstantiated referential pronouns without discernible apposition, like this mysterious"you," not to mention innumerable "let's" and "we." Clearly, a con-versation is taking place, and it is this conversation that moves the plot along, almost as if this conversation were a device borrowed from Greek drama, where we, the readers, along with the narrator, form an informal chorus, repeatedly re-convening to question in strophic form the events occurring before us. Without this constant questioning, this constant expression of one party's expectations, this desire to move forward, we would remain with our cheeks pressed up against the blacksmith's walls. This desire is ours, as readers. We desire to witness the unfolding of the arrangement of incidents, to observe the completion of some motive in either success or failure, to see some "enigma or problem re-solved," to see what lies on the other side of the square. The narrative of Geometric Regional Novel is probing our need for convention, calling attention to the unconscious plot projection that all readers exercise throughout the reading of a novel. This supposition is the articulation, for us, of our reliance on convention, as well as a rendering of the consciousness that we all, unfortunately, share with the villagers. The light of the "artist or acrobat, or whatever such a man should be called" (18) will not allow the villagers to sleep comfortably, and by extension, by presenting this scene so early in the book, this light prohibits our dropping off, which, like all the sleepy and the blessed, is what we would most like. In this way, Jonke's novel captures complete control of our attention, forcing us, by way of the anxiety its radical structure inflicts upon us, to question everything, even the most rudimentary components of our lives." - J. F. Campbell
"The novel can be seen as linguistic parody of an illusory homeland and the presumed freedom of life in the countryside, in that it shows the continual narrowing of personal freedom and cultural horizons. The geometric subdivisions and plans for the village and surroundings, seemingly no more than gently ironic at the beginning, gradually lead to a total isolation of this world. Social criticism, criticism of a restrictive legal system, warnings about an all-paralyzing bureaucracy enveloping even the countryside, are created through means of powerful restricting language—a frightening condition. Similar to Handke's early efforts, but with stronger undertones of parody and even cabaret, Jonke shows the civilizing but also restricting force of language, which can deceive, oppress and even incarcerate human beings. With a gesture of relief the author Jonke suddenly turns away from this complex linguistic landscape. In a light vein he abandons the envisaged "totalitarian" horror, simply wrapping up the village and throwing it behind his back, leaving it all behind, but indicating that he is looking for a new landscape." - Maria Luise Caputo-Mayr

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Gert Jonke, Blinding Moment: Four Pieces About Composers. Ariadne Press, 2009.

"Writing from his background as a conservatory-trained musician and his lifelong passion Gert Jonke has produced literary works in every genre involving the lives and works of various composers. The present volume includes four pieces in several forms - a prose poem in tribute to Olivier Messiaen's great piano work "Catalogue d'oiseaux," which gives the title to the piece; a short story in the form of recollections by George Frederick Handel during the last hours of his life; a play (Gentle Rage) in which Ludwig van Beethoven figures as the alternately despondent and triumphant main character; and a novella whose point of departure is the bizarre, accidental shooting death of Anton Webern in 1945 (Blinding Moment)."

"Gert Jonke is a difficult writer, though cunningly readable, as in this wonderful translation of four texts on composers, which, however, comes complete with 50 pages of critical exposition for 150 pages of text. This critical material could possibly defeat a reader, and it might have been better to include short biographical outlines of Blinding Moment's subjects: Anton Webern, Beethoven, Handel, and Olivier Messiaen. The piece on Messiaen is a sort of prose poem, the Beethoven is in the form of theater sonata, and Handel is caught in a moment of descriptive frenzy both inside and outside his own head. "Handel might well have been one of the few to whom it occurred that the last of the dead from the war now burned away were also the first of the dead from the new peace that had already taken fire." The piece on Webern (“Blinding Moment”) attempts to make sense, as they say, of the senseless death of the composer, shot by mistake by an American soldier in a small town in Austria in September of 1945. Webern is the most refined, the most complex, the most rewarding of twentieth-century composers, whose short pieces encapsulate the whole history of music in under three minutes, despite being written entirely within Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system... and yet he stayed in Austria during the rise of Hitler hoping that the postman would learn to whistle his tunes, and of course saw the new regime ban his music. Killed by a soldier who didn’t know whom he had killed—incapable of knowing who Webern was—Jonke tries to help console us in this loss with no blame apportioned, but with a pithy sense for appropriate quotation: “Yet another winter without composing, and when you don’t compose you don’t exist.”" - Thomas McGonigle

Gert Jonke, The Distant Sound, Dalkey Archive Press, 2010.


"A composer who has already given up composing - because of his inability to notate the music of the spheres - becomes increasingly fixated on capturing a mysterious, eerie, distant sound, which he soon equates with all the things he desires most: the perfect woman, the perfect city, the perfect work of art. Obsessed with his impossible quest, the man breaks out of the asylum and begins a series of comic, dreamlike, and ultimately haunting adventures as he tries to locate the source of the sound that consumes him... and instead finds the root cause of all his failures."

"An author who would go on to write rigorous experimental fiction, Gert Jonke was born in 1946 in Klagenfurt, Austria—Robert Musil's hometown. A talented pianist, he studied music but left the conservatory to be a writer, and found quick success with the 1969 publication of Geometric Regional Novel, a satire that Peter Handke praised in Der Spiegel. In fact many of his poems, novels, and plays reveal that his interest in music never subsided—they often feature characters lost in music, like the nameless composer who narrates The Distant Sound, his latest book to be translated into English. After Jonke died in 2009, his compatriot and fellow novelist Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 Nobel laureate (and the author of The Piano Teacher), immediately issued a statement that touched on his abilities: "He could conjure a universe with two or three choice words. Like a great jazz musician, his improvisations refined as they branched out from a single theme."

"The Distant Sound feels gargantuan—a dark and dense barrage of riffs and arias, as if the author tried to pour a free-jazz opera into the mold of a three-hundred-page novel. There are no chapters, and no quotation marks. Published in 1979, The Distant Sound is part two of a trilogy that began with Homage to Czerny (translated in 2008), also narrated in part by a composer. It's difficult reading and also stunning, with a tongue-in-cheek style that is, to quote a minor character, "recklessly extravagant with the most economical means." Though a challenge, it is Jonke's richest and most inventive novel to be seen in English so far.
The plot begins after the composer has attempted suicide. This lands him in a psychiatric clinic from which he escapes into "a divinely celestial joking cosmedy" to pursue a woman he loves across a nameless city. He sees "the metamorphosis of the daylight into a solid body." A tightrope walker floats. The composer takes a circular train trip and strolls through an orgiastic revolution (in reality a ticker-tape parade and carnival). Like a concerto, the story proceeds with a thematic series of ominous sounds, hence the title. It beings with noise bursting from a house, features a vision of "a gigantic polyphonic mountain flute complex," and describes the "groaning" of a cornfield ravaged by insects. There is also a fantastical centerpiece about urban river control, ending with a lawsuit against the river. The broad metaphor of the composer's journey is that his own suicide attempt is a response to the grand suicide of civilization that surrounds him, in the form of rampant industrialization. This message probably sounded wise when the novel was first published three decades ago and, thanks to recent oil spills and other environmental problems, it's certainly still apt.
Much of Jonke's fiction operates as a sort of picaresque thought experiment. A character ventures out and we get to see a vision of how the world acts on his mind. By using a suicidal composer to narrate The Distant Sound, Jonke has found the perfect man for his storytelling model: an artist who'd rather destroy (himself, no less) than create. Introspection sends him spinning:
'I see myself as a sort of subject that I'm observing, as someone walking along beside me... Of course, it's strange that you can think about yourself the way one thinks about someone else—you think to yourself—because you've never been especially good at thinking about other people.'
Because the composer represents the human capacity for creativity and witnesses slow, widespread destruction, there is a moral heft to this adventure. When he is able to find humor ("I would like to feel that the world around me is a little more dependent on being perceived by me," he remarks), it feels like a small human triumph. Still, the arc of his story is grim. It begins with a vague memory of a violent act and ends with better knowledge of its specifics. Jonke is a playful writer, but given his topics, he wisely submits to the role of honest tragedian. The composer travels from a grand ambition—"to compose that music that has not yet even touched the farthest reaches of the imagination"—to a seriocomic complaint: "It is unpleasant for me to feel constantly caught up in my existence."
Jean M. Snook, who won the 2009 Austrian Cultural Forum's Translation Prize for this book, reports that the final part of the trilogy is titled Awakening to the Great Sleep War. I can't imagine what kind of world we'd live in if wars were fought using sleep as the primary weapon. But I'm glad Jonke can, and I am eager to see what else he's invented." - Matthew Jakubowski  

 
 
Gert Jonke, Awakening to the Great Sleep WarTrans.by Jean M. Snook. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.


One of the loveliest riddles of Austrian literature is finally available in English translation: Gert Jonke's 1982 novel, Awakening to the Great Sleep War, is an expedition through a world in constant nervous motion, where reality is rapidly fraying -- flags refuse to stick to their poles, lids sidle off of their pots, tram tracks shake their stops away like fleas, and books abandon libraries in droves. Our cicerone on this journey through the possible (and impossible) is an "acoustical decorator" by the name of Burgmüller -- a poetical gentleman, the lover of three women, able to communicate with birds, and at least as philosophically minded as his author: "Everything has suddenly become so transparent that one can't see through anything anymore." This enormously comic -- and equally melancholic -- tale is perhaps Jonke's masterwork.

 ““He played with language like a child with soap bubbles, but the bubbles contained extremely refined and precise thought instead of air.”” - Elfriede Jelinek

““One of the great innovators of late 20th and early 21st Century literature—especially with his incorporation of music and mathematics into fiction—and, for the English-speaking world, each additional translated work is more supporting evidence that Jonke’s place is secure.”” (The Collagist)



I will confess that I have a strong predilection for the works of the late Austrian writer Gert Jonke. The opportunity to wax on about his gifts in an open forum led me into dangerous territory: do I unabashedly demand that Awakening to the Great Sleep War win the Best Translated Book Award solely on my enthusiasm or do I try to pragmatically and logically lay out the novel’s superior strengths based on a unbiased literary perspective? I know I should do the latter. But the problem is that his gifts are so unique and particular that his work really defies logic. If you are the type of reader that can wholly surrender your logic and reason to the absurd and surreal fictional worlds Jonke creates, then you will end up loving him as I do and eschewing attempts at critical pragmatism and decorum. You, too, will rant like a literary lunatic when anyone questions his originality or place in the canon of world literature.
Awakening to the Great Sleep War does not have a traditional plot or narrative. None of Jonke’s works are known for their adherence to the basic tenets of story. He is no Robert McKee. In “normal” Jonke works, a character is introduced into an abstract world that can lead the reader in endless philosophical and metaphysical offshoots that give the reader pause to discover their own imagination. In this novel, Burgmüller is the character through which we experience the surreal experience of time, space, love and the city. An “acoustical decorator,” he begins the novel by trying to teach the telemones how to sleep since they have held up buildings for so long, surely they must be tired. As ridiculous as this may sound, Jonke somehow manages to impart a sense of empathy on the reader for an inanimate object and the job of architecture in general. When discovers that the building with the telemones is gone one day, Burgmüller considers the possibilities before he arrives the conclusion that his efforts could have been useful: 
Or had they, in his absence, learned how to sleep after all-had they gotten tired at last, as sleepy as petrified darkness pulled in toward the center of the earth when the trap doors to the planet’s cellar began to open?
That’s a reason this novel should win in my opinion. How many authors can pull that off?
Never fear, traditionalists; there is a love story amongst the surreal renderings of our dear Jonke. There are two love stories of the classic sort—man loves woman, she leaves; man loves another woman, she too leaves. Then there is the lesser-known love story between a woman and a housefly named Elvira. But regardless of who loves whom, the love is as poetic and mournful as any other love story, as Jonke displays in Burgmüller’s girlfriend’s plea to love the housefly as she does: 
But the most important thing at present, she continued, was to give Elvira a chance to rest, not to frighten her in any way, above all not to make an unnecessary noise, you know, people talk much too loudly, as she was now noticing, and if he would please just put himself in the position of the housefly; just imagine, she explained, if that huge building over there across the way suddenly started a conversation with the church tower behind it, can you imagine how loud their words would sound to you, you would thin the tall building or the church yelling at you, or that they were screaming at each other, do you understand what I mean, and when we talk with each other, it must seem about that loud to Elvira, in future we have to talk much more quietly, better yet, whisper, do you understand, nothing above a whisper!
Burgmüller loves this woman and feels he must love Elvira as much to prove his love for her. It’s one thing to explore the love relationship between a woman and a housefly, but to do it with a blend of humor and poignancy is rarely done in adult literature and done successfully. Through the rest of the novel, Jonke examines the vicissitudes of love with another doomed love affair. Burgmüller falls for a writer who views her typewriter as a “reality-producing projector.” Within one paragraph, the invisible line between reality and art as a reflection of reality is woven into her struggle as an artist to perfectly represent reality and how this struggle affects their relationship: 
Unflustered, she crouched at her typewriter, into which she transmitted her tapped signals as usual long into the night, continuing to work on her world, in which her eyes now became a compass rose torn by its own magnetic needle, cut up by the letters of a white-hot cuneiform script, yes, a cuneiform script of the harbor cities that reproduced themselves incisively upon all the coasts with their power-saw boats, in the service of an endless alphabet, like a science without proofs, until the morning flickered like fire from the towers, all of which crossed her lips as usual, whispered in a low voice, while she was sitting at her typewriter as if at a steamship propelled by sewing machines, floating, drifting downstream in the room, midstream in her description, from which he could now hear something about cats with heads like ants, and palm trees with crayfish living in their branches, but that could also have had to do with an entirely different chapter of her story that had crushed on ahead, considering her work tempo he never know how far ahead of him she was at any given time.
Jonke tackles the philosophical questions of literature and art and how the artist struggles between the importance of the word and the importance of what the word represents. Can anyone ever really love in a reality like that? These are questions not often asked to the reader, but nonetheless are always present in the relationship between the writer and the reader. No other novel on the long list challenges us in this way.
A novice translator could easily have mishandled all of Jonke’s absurd, surreal concepts and themes, but Ms. Snook understands the nuance in Jonke’s text to convey the aims of his novel. With a traditional narrative and story structure, it is easier to be more loyal to the text and more literal. In this case, the translator must also understand the abstract concepts and how to put those conceptual ideas in play without sacrificing the wit of Jonke’s style. Thus, this seems one of the most challenging efforts as far as translation is concerned because the translation must carry through thematically as opposed to carrying the story through a conventional structure. Each word holds more weight so that the subtext is present. To have such intimate knowledge of the writer’s work as well as the language clearly makes this novel the strongest translation on the list.
Finally, there is the simple fact that Jonke’s lyrical language paired with his post-modern themes makes for a the most distinctive voice among the top twenty-five books. He was a novelist ahead of his time that created a body of work so magical, original and insightful it would be a disservice to not give the award to Awakening to the Great Sleep War. No other novel on the list is as creative. No other novel on the list offers itself as the masterpiece of the writer’s entire body of work nor solidly establishes that writer as a prominent voice in the history of their country’s literary heritage. Then again, I am in love with Jonke and always will be. And that is lOve with a capital O which is as close to Jonkean love as one can get.- Monica Carter

In the science fiction of movies and television, the future looks more or less uniform. Digital technology is (somehow) even more omnipresent than it is today. A continuous mosaic of audio and video spills across every available surface. A glass skyline stretches toward the horizon with sleek automobiles gliding past the frame. If human culture has existed, say, for more than a few decades, the evidence of that is not visible.
This kind of scenario is a reflection of contemporary reality, of course. Science fiction has traditionally dressed up the future in contemporary styles. And this presentism seems justified today. In our swiftly urbanizing world, the built environment often appears as if it had emerged overnight, without precedent. The megalopolises of Asia and Latin America, with their endless high-rise apartment blocks and elevated thoroughfares, seem to presage something universal for humankind, at least while we can keep industrial civilization going.
But there is another kind of future city, one defined by the accretion of time, where reality is defined by the weight of history rather than its absence. The late Austrian polymath Gert Jonke made a career evoking such places. His complex, often bizarre novels explore how the past continually impinges on the present, particularly in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, first published in 1982 and brought to English last year by Dalkey Archive Press.

The book follows the adventures of a young man named Bergmüller, an “acoustic-interior designer,” searching for love in a vast and fantastical city, unnamed but unmistakably modeled after Vienna, with its Baroque architecture, its winding backstreets, and its hyperarticulate caste of critics, musicians, and philosophers roving about like ants in the shadow of an immense and troubling cultural legacy.
In Jonke’s fictional world, human beings have left centerstage. They drift about, often indistinguishable from their fictional backdrop. Bergmüller himself is a rather flat protagonist. He spends his time flitting between lovers and playing the contemporary flâneur. But exactly how this succession of bodies and buildings affects him remains unclear.
The city itself forms the dominant personality within the novel, evidenced by the unforgettable opening passage, which literally describes the metropolis coming to life at the break of day. 
In the morning, the walls blow their noses, hanging their bleary eyed bedding out of the windows, the roof trusses cough through asthmatic chimneys and some buildings sneeze through their opened skylights; now and then an entryway shoves its stairwell bursting with stairs out onto the street, and sometimes entire suites of rooms are pushed through their walls into public places, while the cellars press down on their heaps of potatoes, preventing them from rising up in rebellion when the countless coal sacks, filled to bursting, blow gobs of smoke into the public transportation system through the bars on the windows.
Among the various examples of living architecture are the caryatids, female statues serving as architectural support. Bergmüller unwittingly sets off the eponymous war by teaching the caryatids and their male companions, the telamones, how to sleep, an event with dire consequences. “Nothing even remotely like falling asleep had been included in the blueprints; even the faintest hint of telemonic tiredness would bring the buildings of half the city to cave right in, a single dream would bring catastrophe, desolation, mountains of rubble…”
These conjectural scenes bring to mind the destruction in Vienna during the Second World War, an event not altogether unconnected with the city’s famed high culture. Along the southern wall of the Austrian Parliament stands a line of caryatids facing out toward the Volkstheater. It was here that a young Adolf Hitler was rumored to have helped paint frescos as an aspiring artist. There’s no proof that this ever happened, of course, but the story has entered Viennese legend. Pull back the curtain of civilizational achievement and you might find catastrophe lurking.
The characters in Jonke’s novel have their own confrontations with history. Among Bergmüller’s loves is an unnamed writer of intense character. She spends her time at work on a book called Portrayal of the World, her magnum opus to be. Their relationship is fraught. She refuses all intimacy with Bergmüller until she has thoroughly exhausted him with her anecdotes, philosophical ponderings, and paranoid theories, which all take up a considerable portion of the novel. Her rough treatment of him forms a small part of what Bergmüller calls the narrative war, a battle to determine the very nature of representation, one that spans centuries and will not be decided until the writer has fashioned a completely new reality from scratch.
Chief among the belligerents in this narrative war is Herr Karl, a godlike figure, possibly the historical Charlemagne, who has persisted into the present day as some kind of semi-immortal being held in a limbo-like state between life and death. The love interest/writer’s fixation on Herr Karl arouses jealousy within Bergmüller. Tired of her constant philosophic battles and the strange phenomena that accompany them, Bergmüller suggests that “real landscapes, cities, you’ll feel everything yourself, we’ll both experience it, we’ll both be able to experience ourselves at last…” In this moment, uncharacteristically direct for this heady novel, Bergmüller speaks for everyone who’s ever exhausted by the life of the mind.
A single question pervades the whole novel: How can one keep a level head under the influence of so much culture? Jonke does not put forth any obvious answers. A path seems to lie between Bergmüller’s passivity and the writer’s obsessive iconoclasm, between serving as an inert vessel for past culture and remaking the world from scratch.
The world gets older, at least in parts. Archives fill with documents, museums with artifacts, concert halls with music. In his densely constructed fictional worlds, Jonke shows the beauties and troubles of cultural abundance. As dilemmas go, it’s all rather high-toned. But debates over history and representation have been going on as long as civilization itself, all too often providing a veneer of culture for acts of gross violence and exploitation. The eponymous Sleep War of Jonke’s novel might be a work of metaphorical fancy, but it serves as a caution. Not everything contained in art should be brought to life.
As time advances, memory accumulates. We experience more of the past, both as individuals and as members of human society. Perhaps one day, through some feat of technical intelligence, our built environment will actually achieve some degree of sentience. Awakening to the Great Sleep War, then, might well serve as a guide when a phrase like “the city remembers” becomes more than merely figurative. - Matthew Spencer
 
The publication of a new novel and autobiographical essay by Gert Jonke gives readers in the English-speaking world a fascinating view of the singular fictional worlds of the late, experimental Austrian playwright and author.
Born in 1946 in Klagenfurt, the city that also produced Ingeborg Bachmann and Robert Musil, Jonke studied piano at the conservatory but chose instead to write, publishing his first book, Geometric Regional Novel, at age 23. In his prolific career he wrote dozens of plays, novels, and collected short works, travelled widely, and was recognised with various literary awards, including the Franz Kafka and Austrian State prizes. When he died from pancreatic cancer in 2009 at age 62, many prominent writers eulogised him, including the Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek.
Jonke values wildly imaginative representations of reality in his novels. He projects worlds in long, recursive, musical sentences that burst with sophisticated grammar and syntax. Quite often there's a hyper-intelligent surrealism bridging the narrative and the mind of his protagonist, upsetting the cities and landscape. It makes for humorous, dazzling and demanding fiction, orchestrated to counteract the absurdity of modern life with the imaginative freedom of an individual.
Awakening to the Great Sleep War, Jonke's sixth book in English translation, opens with a vision of a city rising from the ground in the morning mist and settling back to earth at night, as "only the wings of a few helplessly fluttering rooftops still sail swaying over the spring tides of twilight". We meet the book's hero via the first in a series of omniscient questions that appear in the text in italics, as if interrogating the character and the book itself: "What did you lose in that city, Burgmüller?"
Burgmüller is a dreamer, an "acoustical interior designer" who's recently broken up with his girlfriend. He's introduced as an exhausted figure obsessed with the telamones - the carved stone figures that appear to prop up the city's buildings. Burgmüller believes the telamones have tried to contact him so they can learn how to sleep, something they've never done, and for good reason, as Burgmüller discovers: if they did, "everything could cave in" throughout the city. His ecstatic vision is an effect of both his vocation - he yearns to create "music we can live in" - and the pain he's recently endured. The story behind his pain makes him the most fully realised character in Jonke's translated fiction to date.
Award-winning translator Jean M Snook has stated that Jonke's novels Homage to Czerny (2008), The Distant Sound (2010), and Sleep War form a trilogy. While the books do feature minor recurring characters, such as a portly poet named Kalkbrenner, there's no plot or story arc connecting them. Instead, they have a thematic unity, each exploring the nature of reality, the suffering of artists, and notions of romantic sacrifice.
Jonke wrote broad social satire and touched subtly on issues of class, gender, or race. In Sleep War, however, he focuses directly on male-female relationships, pushing Burgmüller toward the important awakening in the book's title. Jonke uses the basic structure of a tragicomic love story - showing two loves Burgmüller lost - then fills it with intricate emotional and psychological mazes for Burgmüller to navigate.
We read first, in typically zany Jonke fashion, of how one of Burgmüller's previous girlfriends became obsessed with a housefly. She names the fly Elvira, traps it in the kitchen of Burgmüller's flat, drills holes in the kitchen door to observe the fly, and demands that Burgmüller go out each day and buy fresh slices of salami, which she feeds to Elvira the fly by sliding them under the kitchen door.
This goofy episode is mercifully brief and serves to show Burgmüller accepting this odd behaviour and making sacrifices to maintain his relationship. He loves her and blames himself for what's happening and "kept trying to make up for things he hadn't done that might be the cause of their failing relationship". Enrapt yet confused, he watches her observing the fly through the kitchen door "as if it were also the forbidden room of her own innermost being, forbidden even to herself", and he comes to see that somehow "the fly's arrival had facilitated [her] being lost to the world, the better to climb into an entirely different realm".
When the seemingly inevitable day comes that both she and the fly vanish, Burgmüller wonders "was Elvira perhaps an invention of his girlfriend's, or was it possible that the girlfriend was an invention, and there had only ever been Elvira …?" She never returns. Burgmüller is crushed. "It had become a matter of indifference to Burgmüller whether he kept on waiting or forgot to wait while he was waiting, because forgetting had become a form of waiting, and even his memory became a waiting room."
This sets up the next, much longer section where Burgmüller once again loves madly and loses much to the chaos of romance. He starts seeing a writer who's at work on a massive book called Portrayal of the World. She also isolates herself from Burgmüller because, as he learns, "[She] wasn't just writing her story, not just putting it down on paper, but was also living it, going through it, experiencing it for herself."
Hurt again, Burgmüller asks her to explain what's going on between them. Lost in her art, she tells him angrily that "life is a substitute for words", and that he needs to realise that "what seems to be happening right now is nothing more than a sort of symbol for what is being written at the moment". Baffled, he tries to insist that he and she really do exist, to which she replies, "Only as letters of the alphabet, nothing more."
The mind games continue apace in this battle of wills, growing madder still, more layered with philosophy. She convinces him to enlist in "a narrative war" against Herr Karl, a God-like figure who may be the as-yet-living Karl the Great, who is dictating common futures and common pasts to humanity through the "reality-producing projector" of millions of typewriters. Here, Jonke drops in a pun about "Bagel and Schopenglower" (ie, Hegel and Schopenhauer) and eventually we see Burgmüller fully submit to her fantastic alternate reality by letting her "invent a new memory for him" and have it "knocked into him by her typewriter".
Some men express their devotion with tattoos; Burgmüller's masochism runs deeper: "Because his love for her should be as strong as possible, he didn't want to have anything more at all to do with himself … instead, he wanted to be aware of himself only through contact with the woman he loved, as intensely as possible, to the point of wounding himself most gently."
When this girlfriend also disappears, Burgmüller is back wandering the city again. He has sacrificed his entire identity. As he stares one day at a caryatid, a female stone figure holding up a building, he awakens to the idea that she is in fact "his stone girlfriend".
"Was that why he'd been abandoned by his lost love, because any woman beside him was made to feel increasingly like a living, feeling, female telamon who was expected to support the entranceway to his building, or some other thing, and who therefore became afraid that she would finally turn to stone, as he had now?" He abandons the city, imagining it's crumbling behind him as the telamones finally have their sleep war.
The book has tedious passages, but yields many astonishing high points. For those with less patience, two of Jonke's late-career works, Blinding Moment, a collection of fiction about composers and System of Vienna, an autobiographical novel-in-stories, may be more enjoyable. Similarly, a new autobiographical essay called Individual and Metamorphosis, translated by Vincent Kling, is forthcoming from The Review of Contemporary Fiction.
It's Jonke at his lucid best as he discusses aspects of his life that inspired some of the recurring motifs in his fiction. - Matthew Jakubowski

From the very first page, Gert Jonke’s Awakening to the Great Sleep War boldly announces that it will defy definition as a standard piece of easy digestible fiction by introducing its protagonist as a man who converses with telamones, atlantes, and caryatids and tries rather unsuccessfully to persuade them to appear for dinner at his apartment.  Conversation and invitation in of itself isn’t all that strange.  Conversation with supposedly inanimate objects like stone support columns and marble statues most certainly is.

This protagonist, a name named Burgmüller, works as an acoustic interior designer, which one would assume involves creating buildings that will maximize the potential for superior sound quality within their walls.  Perhaps it’s this possession of a unique skill set that allows him alone to discover a path to communication between the inanimate and the organic, one that leads to an odd friendship between that which is considered permanent and that which is ultimately destined to live a transitory life.  It’s this idea of permanence vs. temporal that’s on full display in the novel’s opening pages and continues to be explored throughout the text.
The telemones are fascinated by Burgmüller’s ability to perform an act which they cannot: sleep.  And so he begins to hold lectures and demonstrations for them on this very subject.  Can they learn to sleep?  What will happen if they do?  Will the city’s buildings come crashing to the ground?  Does sleep alone hold the power to reduce that which is a considered immutable into nothing more than a pile of rubble?
This strange probing by way of asking absurd questions which have no logical answers doesn’t end here.  Jonke proves that he’s got more than one trick up his sleeve as he sets out to build a surreal landscape which pushes at the boundaries between the physical world in which we live and the imaginations we all possess.  The two certainly co-exist, but can they actually ever cross over?
The exploration of the ideas of permanence and invented realities continue to be explored through a series of failed love affairs.  Burgmüller isn’t the exception to the norm, oh no, he meets some women that are just as quirky as he is, including one who falls hopelessly in love with a pet housefly and another who believes that through the use of her typewriter that she can reinvent history.  As if “normal” relationships weren’t hard enough to maintain, Jonke feels the need to magnify the problems inherent in them and push them to the absurd extreme.  The results aren’t always spot on, in fact at times they can be quite tedious and perplexing, but the joys of navigating Jonke’s wondrous creation, absorbing that which it has to offer and guessing at where it could possibly turn next, transform Awakening into a very powerful piece of writing.
Accepting Jonke’s story, buying into his idea of plot and his narrative structure, requires starting from a place of emptiness, forgetting all that has been learned about how the art form of the novel works.  One doesn’t just read Awakening to the Great Sleep War; they give themselves over to the experience of it.
Straight forward is most definitely not how this novel would be described, but quite often the best fiction comes wrapped in a more difficult package.  Jonke’s novel will make you question just how much you’re missing out on, how much you’ve got your eyes closed to, and how much of your life you’re blindly sleepwalking through.
Do you possess the power to transform reality?  Can you create something lasting from your temporary existence?  Awaken yourself to the possibilities. - Aaron Westerman

IN AN ARTICLE in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung following the 2009 death of Austrian author Gert Jonke, literary critic Richard Kämmerlings describes Jonke’s unique tactics for expressing dissatisfaction with the world as we know it: “Repressive structures, traditions, and norms aren’t subject to a frontal attack, but rather, in the form of language games that constantly generate themselves — later you were supposed to call this autopoetic — they’re weakened and corroded from the inside out.” The balance between destruction and creation, between critical and poetic functions, has always made Jonke a difficult-to-categorize writer.
Jonke’s profile has risen steadily in the past decade, not only in English but also in German-speaking countries. His loosely linked trilogy following the surreal exploits of a failed composer named Burgmüller represents a significant contribution to German-language experimental literature. The 1982 novel Awakening to the Great Sleep War, the trilogy’s final book (translated into English by Jean M. Snook), was long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award 2013.
Awakening to the Great Sleep War is mainly concerned with Burgmüller’s relationships with three women and his interactions with his surroundings, particularly cities. Jonke composes a wildly imaginative, deeply poetic hymn to landscape: “From the light surf on the sun tide, the time that was yet to come pulled many colorfully shining schools of fish to shore with its nonce nets, while the blossoms on the bushes and trees in the parks began to sing.” Snook’s translation is pure and clean, and her prose has a ceaseless energy that fluctuates gracefully between crisp philosophical enigma and exuberant poeticizing. The world of the novel radiates life and benevolence, but also constant flux and complete disregard for the rules of reality.
This is not, however, a naïve expression of optimism: Awakening to the Great Sleep War was clearly written by someone who loves the world deeply but wishes it were different. At times the tenderness and empathy with which Burgmüller approaches his surroundings recall Christian notions of a creation, in which everything is imbued with the essence of God, and yet is imperfect. But however devout Burgmüller’s manner at times, his sorrows are certainly of this world. Besides his relationship problems, he also feels life’s invisible weight on his shoulders:
a peculiar feeling, namely that he was playing the role of a very mobile caryatid, no, a very mobile atlas [sic] who, to be sure, had no building, no gateway, no ortel to support or to carry on his shoulders, but in its place, and certainly comparable in terms of weight, he had a column of air.
He is a sensitive, earnest protagonist whose thoughts circle back on themselves in melancholic, meditative arcs.
Jonke describes a universe in which the typical categories of animate and inanimate are conflated. There’s something cartoonish about the way his cities come alive, their components jumping and twitching, like when “the manhole covers on the city streets started flapping up and down like big round book covers.” By blurring the distinction between active and passive, Jonke also muddles the traditional line between setting and plot. A city is what happens in it, not a place where things happen.
In his essay “Individual and Metamorphosis,” translated in the Summer 2012 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Jonke recounts an astounding story from his life that casts the far-flung experimentation of his landscapes in an entirely different light. In 1976, he had been contemplating suicide, and he walked to the Reich Bridge in Vienna, intending to throw himself into the water, only to find that the bridge had just collapsed. From his account:
[T]he bridge from which I wanted to plunge into the river went and spoiled it by taking a plunge of its own immediately before I could take mine, simply locked me out, took off just as I was getting there, ran away from me at a mad dash, at the last minute, head over heels, wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.
In a critical essay accompanying “Individual and Metamorphosis,” Vincent Kling, a translator of some of Jonke’s works who knew the author personally, argues that personal experience was significant to Jonke’s achievements: “Hope springs eternal because the imagination leaps high in Jonke’s reshaping of his own life into an art that only seems remote from the everyday.” Jonke himself says the Reichsbrücke story appears “in sublimated form” in Awakening to the Great Sleep War. We are not wrong to read Burgmüller’s experiences as surreal: that is, based on the real, above, but in relation to reality.
Early in the novel, Burgmüller strikes up a friendship with caryatids and telemones (stone figures, common in Vienna, that act as architectural support elements, like columns), and tries to teach them to sleep (the most inactive thing a person can do without dying). The stone figures cannot understand, let alone practice sleep themselves — though Jonke envisions the architectural destruction that would ensue if they did, a great sleep war laying the city to waste. Burgmüller, meanwhile, has ruined his own ability to sleep by trying too hard to teach it. This is the first of many episodes in which Jonke expresses skepticism that experience can be communicated. Trying may even hollow out authentic experience, leaving former sleep-master Burgmüller at the mercy of tranquilizers for rest.
Similarly, a delightful argument between Burgmüller and his first girlfriend about whether they should go to “hither” or “thither” foregrounds Jonke’s concern that our points of reference are inadequate to our shifting destinations. Maps, which contain “insidious disguises for incorrect, misleading topographies,” prove useless for describing reality. It is the changing nature of reality and the passing of time that make maps so utterly inadequate: “But they were unreliable aids to orientation, because aside from the fact that their names and signs were in a constant state of flux, you could often see with the naked eye how the landscape depicted on them was in the process of changing.” You could say that the hyperactivity of Jonke’s scenery, with the roofs of its houses levitating above their walls and its benches complaining of boredom, is a dramatization of the volatile nature of existence. A map might purport to describe something static, but in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, this is manifestly untrue.
As he negotiates this unmappable world, Burgmüller dreams of a language that will make true communication possible, unlike our “fabricated language of undiscoverable falsifications.” Love, the other great beauty besides landscape in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, motivates his desire. The book displays a complete lack of cynicism regarding romantic relationships. Though his relationships eventually founder in tragicomic absurdities appropriate to the Jonke-universe — one following the “hither–thither” dispute, the next after his girlfriend becomes obsessed with a housefly, the third because her understanding of reality is so different from Burgmüller’s — the sex and companionship that Burgmüller experiences with his lovers is genuine and whole. It’s language that fails them. The fullness of their connection cannot be communicated in words.
Jonke’s final girlfriend is the paramount embodiment of this problem. She’s writing a book that she insists isn’t about experience. Rather, it is an experience, which she lives as she writes it, her typewriter a machine for creating reality. Unfortunately for Burgmüller, he continues to exist outside of her book. There is an aching eagerness that underlies this woman’s desire for language to be absolutely, literally commensurate with experience. It manifests itself not only in her book project, but also in her dialogue with Burgmüller:
And then she whispered something to him very quietly in confidence: Listen, don’t tell anyone what I’m going to say to you now, because it’s one of my most intimate secrets that no one else will know now other than you, listen, my breasts, they look like, what do you think, yes, they look like a capital B from the German word LIEBE written in capital letters, which means LOVE...!
The form of the secret, often invoked by Burgmüller’s girlfriends, approximates the structure of a romantic relationship, which is a private and singular connection denied to the rest of the world. Even if your lover tells you something utterly universal, that the letter B looks like breasts and is contained in the word Liebe, only being told so as a secret is appropriate to the experience of communicating with your lover.
But it’s not enough to find structures within our existing language that are near to the nature of experience. What is needed, according to Burgmüller, is:
a language in which the remaining incomprehensibly personal strangeness would soon be more familiar to us, as we would someday catch hold of this word-sail far ahead of us, disappearing before our eyes, whose ranges of tonal expression would be made up of incomparable ways of speaking on the writing routes between the lodgings of so liberating a future grammar.
Language is what will free us and propel us together, through landscape, toward what is to come. In this sense, Awakening to the Great Sleep War is a utopian book, not only in its glowing depiction of love and the world, but also in its hope that human understanding can someday contain these wonders. The book focuses relentlessly on the future, ending with this lovely, mysterious, forward-looking dream: “Much that is now invisible will soon be very easy to discover, because everything has suddenly become so transparent that one can’t see through anything anymore.”
In his FAZ essay, Kämmerlings traces Jonke’s fall from popularity in the 1980s to this focus on alternate reality, a trajectory that left his writing nowhere to expand: “Narratively, he, like many of his characters, reached the limit that art cannot go beyond if it wants to maintain an anchor in reality. To imagine freedom for yourself, which suffocates under social constraints, leads to escapism, after all.” This statement might say more about the attitudes of prominent contemporary German literary figures toward the avant-garde than about the actual potential for development within Jonke’s writing. After all, his books are readable if challenging, and a lag in his production does not mean that his writing stopped developing. In an interview with Matthew Jakubowski on The Quarterly Conversation, Kling, in keeping with a more biographically informed reading of Jonke’s works and career, suggests that it was Jonke’s spiral into alcoholism that stifled his career. Whatever the reason, Jonke reemerged in the 2000s in German-speaking countries with a series of extremely successful plays, and in 2010 his hometown of Klagenfurt created a bi-yearly literature prize in his name with a 15,000€ purse. His stock rose in English around the same time, as Dalkey Archive Press began publishing translations of his significant works, with Awakening to the Great Sleep War being the latest.
Such cyclical patterns, such rising and falling, decline and renewal, are to be found within Jonke’s books, as well as in the course of his career. For all that it is focused on the future, Awakening to the Great Sleep War never arrives there. For all that it is a visionary book, it is also an extremely repetitive one at every level, from sentence to theme to plot. Burgmüller communes with his city, philosophizes, loves and loses, dreams his dreams. The world as we know it shudders, ripples, finds itself reinvented. This is necessary. This is the only way forward, or perhaps it’s just the only way. As one of Burgmüller’s girlfriends emphasizes, “[T]he march of time could be thought of as a recurring cycle of terrible library fires alternating with incessant library reconstructions and expansions, which then led again to new library fires.” - Amanda DeMarco



Yes, they had turned up in these rooms, which had now at last become the rooms of their story, had now been conquered by their story, taken prisoner as in a narrative war…
Everything is alive in Gert Jonke’s Awakening to the Great Sleep War- buildings, cities, landscapes, the weather.  The world has been remade in strange, yet often comforting ways.  Caryatids speak, buildings breathe. 
In the morning, the walls blow their noses, hanging their bleary-eyed bedding out the windows, the roof trusses cough through asthmatic chimneys, and some buildings sneeze through their opened skylights; now and then an entryway shoves its stairwell, bursting with stairs, out into the street, and sometimes entire suites of rooms are pushed out through their walls into public places, while cellars press down on their heaps of potatoes, preventing them from rising up in rebellion when the countless coal sacks, filled to bursting, blow gobs of smog into the public transit system through the bars on the window.
At first glance, Awakening seems to border uncomfortably on magic realism, but part of Jonke’s strategy for defamiliarizing the world and making it new for us is to anthropomorphize everything.  Awakening to the Great Sleep War might more properly have been titled “Awakening to the Great Narrative War,” for this is a novel about language and narrative.  There is a story line or, rather, a series of largely unrelated episodes involving Burgmüller (one is tempted to call him “poor Burgmüller”), a somewhat hapless character whose occupation is “acoustic interior designer.”  As the book opens, Burgmüller discovers that he can communicate with the city’s many caryatids and atlantes, those architectural figures that bear the weight of buildings on their shoulders.  Having stood at attention for centuries, they ask Burgmüller to teach them about sleeping and dreaming.  Eventually this relationship wanes when, among other things, Burgmüller realizes that the entire city would collapse if, indeed, the caryatids and atlantes fell asleep on the job.  So next he sets out on a train ride during which he meets a woman who just might be the love of his life, except that she is determined to get off at the station named THITHER, whilst he is going to HITHER. After much ado, they part ways, allowing Burgmüller to fall in love with yet another mysterious woman, except that she becomes obsessed with a housefly which has taken up residence in their kitchen.  Next, Burgmüller realizes he can mysteriously direct the flow of the flocks of birds that fly overhead, creating beautiful living sculptures -until, that is,his abilities suddenly fail him.  Finally, Burgmüller falls for yet another woman, a writer determined to create the “perfect narrative.” As you can see, summarizing the plot doesn’t really communicate what Awakening is about.
One way of characterizing the trajectory of Awakening is to say that it is the story of Burgmüller’s failed quixotic quest for a Utopian existence, his desire “to make music we can live in”and to find a companion who shares his aspirations and, not incidentally, who might also validate his vision.  Jonke gives us glimpses of this vision in long passages of insanely inventive writing in which every individual component of the world – animate and inanimate – suddenly slips into synchronization (with touches of Rube Goldberg). 
He thought of setting up fog horns at varying heights and depths around the city, locomotive whistles, car horns, acoustic alarm systems, and all possible mechanically operable instrument-machines, and to preset them for a certain rhythm, which could cause the masses of birds in the sky to behave according to design; when it was very hot, for example, it should be possible, by sounding an even note at a certain pitch, to collect birds at a certain height, and by filling in the chord, to have them collect in a corresponding density over the city, so that the city itself could be protected from receiving too large a dose of thermal radiation; and then it would also be possible to wallpaper the dome of the sky, as it were, with feathers, and so control the quality of light, from slightly darkened to deep twilight, according to his respective requirements.
There is often a breathless euphoria to Jonke’s writing, but he continually reminds us that Burgmüller’s quest is Sisyphean,   In the end, everyone fails him: the women who desert him, the birds who cease responding to his creative direction, the caryatids and atlantes who exist on an utterly incompatible time scale.  Burgmüller is not even allowed to commit suicide properly; the bridge he wants to jump from collapses only moments before he arrives.  Nevertheless, after every defeat, the ever- irrepressible, Chaplinesque Burgmüller always picks himself up and starts out again.
For Jonke, language seems to be a set of tools with which we conceptualize connections and causal relationships in the world beyond us.  Language might not permit us to actually alter the conditions of the world beyond us, but it does permit us to temporarily refuse the seeming inflexibility of the world through the power of imagination.  All we have to do is throw off the shackles of habit and permit entirely new relationships and systems to emerge. 
Burgmüller’s quest meets its greatest challenge when a nameless female writer takes up residence in a spare room in Burgmüller’s apartment, a woman determined to create a world entirely through writing.  “We need a new language that will simply not allow itself to be persuaded by us.”  Burgmüller soon finds he has become an unwilling character in the story emerging from her typewriter. She has even provided him with an entirely new past, which, “for her sake,” he dutifully attempts to memorize and assimilate.  
She had once told him incidentally that the story she wanted to write at his place was to be an exact description of the world and also proof of the fact that the whole so-called world is an invention, our life doesn’t take place in it at all, it only represents a description undertaken with such sincerity that it makes us believe we are living it…
But try as he  might, her idea of an autonomous, non-referential language proves too much for Burgmüller. 
…while writing her story of the invented world she had gotten trapped in the invented world of her story, a prisoner and at the same time an actor in her story, she couldn’t behave in any other way, that was it, she was living and simultaneously writing by putting down the plot on paper, and at the same time she was bodily a part of the story she was depicting, without any distance from it, without hovering above it like other inventors of traditional stories, but almost in danger of being crushed by her storytelling…
Jonke clearly relishes both sides of the amusing philosophical arguments in which Burgmüller and the writer engage, but he ultimately sides with Burgmüller.  If everybody wrote their own story and their own history, the world would become a nightmare.  And, for a brief moment, it actually does.  As her newly written world continues to emerge unchecked, Burgmüller’s world – the “real world” – begins to come unglued.  Manhole covers start flapping like “big round book covers,” the streets begin to complain, traffic lights stop working, and chaos descends, “complete with all its anarchistic inconveniences.”  Burgmüller realizes he is losing the war of the narratives and he attempts to argue her back from her position by explaining the potential consequences of her beliefs: 
One day soon, all of our shelves will become cascades of life, waterfalls springing with infinite slowness from our walls of books, breaking through, yes, even here, even out of the walls of this very room, slowly plunging through the corridors of every apartment, down the stairwells, out of the buildings; yes, even the ocean and its Sargasso Seas will come to rustle with the book-heaps that have filed out of our library doors through the streets of this city; soon they will be full of all our always-being-imagined stories, thoughts, pictures: inundated, our protagonists having already hopped down undisturbed from all the library ladders, clambered down out of the windows, and then, staggering outside, being caught by a wind, blown up and away through the entire Republic, only going to ground beyond the farthest limits of visions – soon they will even start crossing the unimaginably high wall of the sealed-off ocean.
As a corrective, Burgmüller proposes that they depart on a trip to see “real landscapes, cities, you’ll feel everything yourself, we’ll both experience it, we’ll both be able to experience ourselves at last…”  But she will have none of it and she angrily disappears, taking her typewriter and her narrative with her.
Awakening ends with Burgmüller starting out on a new episode, boarding a transparent train made entirely of glass that heads off across the countryside. 
A little later they glide out of the city, or the city is shedding its travelers, or brushing them out of itself, one can’t say exactly, and Burgmüller feels the landscape starting to glide over him like a skin, feels the hills and the intervening valleys skimming across his face.
It’s impossible to say whether he’s gliding through this stretch of land or whether the stretch of land is running through him, whether the travelers are driving the landscape past them or the landscape is throwing the travelers out of it; or whether the region is perhaps just leaning back, has leaned back into the general background.
There is something refreshing, exhilarating, and, yes, joyful in Jonke’s writing here.  Burgmüller seems to have finally won the narrative war and I think it is due to the ability to “hover above”the stories of the world, to indulge in the imagination and in the multitude of stories that language permits us to weave.  Over at Anaesthete, there is an excellent post that, among other things, ponders Jonke’s relationship to the Romantics.  I would agree with Anaesthete that one of Jonke’s major concerns is alienation.  Here’s Anaesthete: 
Jonke seems keen to answer two questions with which the Romantics were also confronted: “is there an existence beyond alienation from world and nature?” and “with what means can the individual overcome alienation?”. It is here that Jonke stands apart from the Romantics, at least to some extent, for, in both cases, the former holds that the answer is to be found in language or, perhaps better, is language.
My first attempt to read Awakening resulted in a false start and some serious confusion on my part. But I went back to the beginning and immediately fell under its strange Escher-like spell. I’ll end with with my favorite sentence from the book: 
It had become a matter of indifference to Burgmüller whether he kept on waiting or forgot to wait while he was waiting, because forgetting had become a form of waiting, and even his memory became a waiting room, where he imagined returning endlessly to the time coming toward him or the day after tomorrow, as if he had put it so far behind him that it had hurried to get ahead of him again and had passed him by miles. - sebald.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/gert-jonkes-great-narrative-war/


A recent post at Vertigo suggests a paradox underlying language through the juxtaposition of two paragraphs from Gert Jonke’s essay “Individual and Metamorphosis”, published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2012, Vol. XXXII. The paragraphs so juxtaposed are here given:
a. “I am an invention of my own self.  Since coming upon myself facing myself I’ve been faced the whole time with the problem of how to place myself somewhere, in some place where I would be able either to find or somehow cobble together on my own, through hints and hunches at least, something like a roof, a lodging, a shelter for me and my head.  In my case it was clear soon enough that this would be most feasible if I came to settle in a region of my own arranging, a plot of land in the realm of language, or narration.”
b. “How, nonetheless, from a purely technical standpoint, can language express what has always been inexpressible, grow literate enough to produce literature?  Allow me to try illustrating it for you through an image.  Picture language as a fence you’re erecting: letters and words as fence posts, sentences as fences put up around an area itself unknown, intangible, unmeasured, perhaps not even really accessible; but my fencing it in with language delineates its outlines to me, allows me to see its contours, even though I cannot gain access or perhaps do not even need to enter this area…”
Despite Jonke’s sometimes opaque style, from these passages there emerge a few promising routes from which to pursue further reasoning on the question of the relation between self and language, along with a healthy dose of skepticism on just how far one might be able to push or analyze such a relation.
The first paragraph reprises key themes from both the history of philosophy and literature, particularly in their romantic iterations, where the question on which thinkers lingered before all was that of (re)finding or (re)making a home for oneself in the world. Insofar as the initial premise in this romantic reasoning consists in the alienation of humanity from its original unity with world and nature, these thinkers then posit the need for a return to this state that is, at the same time, qualitatively different from it. In other words, the return desired is not that of a simple coming back by the straight path but, instead, the circling around by other paths and means to that place from where one had set out.
More concretely, if this original unity is correlated with an immediate, non-discursive consciousness of world and nature, then the only means of return are those afforded by one’s mediate, discursive consciousness through which one might attain to a consciousness so thoroughly mediated by the interrelation of all things through the subject that consciousness thus passes into a sort of mediated immediacy. This higher reflexivity is perhaps best captured by Jonke’s: “Since coming upon myself facing myself I’ve been faced the whole time with the problem of how to place myself somewhere…”. For the subject of higher consciousness, its thoughts no longer move through limited, discursive circles; rather, they engage in a qualitatively higher intuition, the result of having pushed the discursive means of the mind to their logical extreme.
Although Jonke’s position is not by any means to be reduced to a mere retread of romanticism, there remain important similarities both in this background story and its emphasis on the work of the individual, as is clear from the preceding paragraph. Moreover, Jonke seems keen to answer two questions with which the Romantics were also confronted: “is there an existence beyond alienation from world and nature?” and “with what means can the individual overcome alienation?”. It is here that Jonke stands apart from the Romantics, at least to some extent, for, in both cases, the former holds that the answer is to be found in language or, perhaps better, is language.
If the first paragraph cited seems to provide a straightforward manner of finding this place in the world, it should be noted that it hides within it internal tensions that need to be brought out more fully. It is clear from the above that the individual is necessarily confronted with the question of its own consciousness or self-reflection and, thus, the question of what is to be done with itself. As it does not feel at home, it must instead find some way “to place [itself] somewhere” with “something like a roof, a lodging, a shelter for [it] and [its] head”.
Yet where is this place to be found? Jonke’s wording seems to indicate that it is not to be found; it must be made. Hence, his emphasis on the individual “as an invention of [its] own self’, which echoes the place and role of the individual in most strands of Romanticism. The place where the individual is to find its home and settle will most likely prove to be one of “[its] own arranging, a plot of land in the realm of language, or narration”. Thus, language proves to be, at once, that material on which the individual will work and the means by which the individual will carry out that work. More simply, it is through narrating or narrativizing world and nature and bringing these into language in new forms that the individual will come to feel more at home in it. This is precisely because these linguistic measures consist in lending world and nature an order that consciousness finds otherwise lacking in the latter.
Wherefore the skepticism above mentioned? This owes to two developments: one considered by Jonke in the second paragraph cited above in the form of language’s relation to the absolute; the second an issue underlying Jonke’s own assumptions concerning the relation between individual, language and community on which the first paragraph stands or falls. - thedentures.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/fr-436/

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