Ernst Weiss - One of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka

Ernst Weiss, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, Trans by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago Books, 2010)

«First published in 1931 and now appearing for the first time in English, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer is a disquieting anatomy of a deviant mind in the tradition of Crime and Punishment. Letham, the treacherously unreliable narrator, is a depraved bacteriologist whose murder of his wife is, characteristically, both instinctual and premeditated. Convicted and exiled, he attempts to atone for his crimes through science, conceiving of the book we are reading as an empirical report on himself – whose ultimate purpose may be to substitute for a conscience.Yet Letham can neither understand nor master himself. His crimes are crimes of passion, and his passions remain more or less untouched by his reason – in fact they are constantly intruding on his “report,” rigorous as it is intended to be. Both feverish and chilling, Georg Letham explores the limits of reason and the tensions between objectivity and subjectivity. Moving from an unnamed Central European city to arctic ice floes to a tropical-island prison, this layered novel – with its often grotesquely comic tone and arresting images – invites us into the darkest chambers of the human psyche.»

«Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka... This is easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years... One is filled with impressions, stimulated, gripped by images, characters, and episodes that are strangely real but also unforgettably fashioned. –And, incidentally, it's all very Austrian.» —Thomas Mann

«I wonder why Weiss isn’t better known here. A doctor as well as a writer, he knew about the body as well as the heart, and you can trust him when he describes how each can act on the other.» —Nicholas Lezard

«This is a strange, compelling novel about a strangely compelling – if scarcely admirable – protagonist. A novel that is at once of its time (1931) and beyond time, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, never before available in English, is the first-person narrative of an unstable doctor who does not blanch at vivisection (although he much later says it gave him a “vague guilty feeling”); who marries for no good reason and murders his wife, also for no good reason; who has a prototypically Oedipal relationship with his father, who in turn goes so far as to try to change his own name to distance himself from this son; and who is not to be trusted – not even when writing his own story.
Ernst Weiss (1882-1940) – physician, ship’s doctor and author – keeps the reader thoroughly off balance in this peculiar, mildly surrealistic novel that on the one hand reeks of between-the-wars sensibility and on the other delves deeply into timeless motivations and personality flaws – in some ways along the lines of Dostoevsky. Recurrent themes march through the book’s pages like Wagnerian leitmotifs. Two of the most important are rats – dealt with in grotesquely loving detail and with elements of horror reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls (1923) – and the phrase “loving hearts” (almost always given with quotation marks). Themes frequently interrelate, spilling over each other, as when Letham relates the failure of his father’s Arctic expedition, which was overrun by shipboard rats. An elaborate attempt to poison the rodents has this effect, described with medico-scientific care, on the crew: “Then someone begins to breathe with difficulty, to groan, he vomits, someone else croaks, racked with terrible throat irritation, tears gush from his eyes, his nose, his oral mucosa begin to be awash, twenty men complain of headaches, burning in their throats, choking, nausea, anxiety, fear of death, fear of darkness, fear of the northern lights, all throng to the gangplank, but this is no orderly retreat like that of the children of nature, the Eskimos and their animals; instead the civilized men stumble in the darkness, the steel hawsers slice the palms of their hands, they bump into each other, two of the scholars slip on the icy gangplank, slide sideways under one of the slippery steel hawsers and lie whimpering on the ice at the foot of the ship, all are as though gripped by madness.” After this torrent of words comes the brief analytical comment: “So this was the result: only thirty-two animals had met their maker.”
This sort of boldly striking stylistic contrast pervades Weiss’ book. Letham is a most peculiar but highly engaging narrator – in the sense that he engages the reader, not in the sense of being a pleasant person. He writes of relatives of convicted criminals, “Possibly the ‘loving hearts’ had forgiven and forgotten all our misdeeds. They thanked thanklessness with thanks and presented their cheeks to be struck as my poor wife had once done. But had the crimes been undone on that account? You who are entirely free of conscience, step forward! I am not among you.” These rhetorical flourishes – one must assume they have been well rendered, since Joel Rotenberg’s translation reads so smoothly throughout – occur at irregular intervals, as Letham’s recounting of his story wanders hither and thither, wherever he chooses to take it. “I am the son of well-to-do, unpunished parents (or is it a punishment for the old man to have a son like me?), I was educated in good schools – but life was my best teacher, as my father was the first to prove to me. Once he made me spend the night with rats in a locked, pitch-dark room, to teach me not to be afraid of animals.”
Mixed in with Letham’s memories and very imperfect introspection are a series of proclamations about grand human endeavors, often mingling elements of religion and science: “I have never believed very deeply in prayer or making the sign of the cross. Where ultramicroscopy, where microbial culture, where pathologic physiology rule, traditional religion usually has no crucial role to play. Sad, but true. Tragic, but that is the fact.” Yet Letham retains some sense of what is right and proper in medicine, as shown in the revulsion he feels for the prison doctor who examines him: “I am like a head of livestock to this wrinkly old fellow pawing me with his greasy hands… – this gray-haired, gold-braided oaf is prodding at my face, my ocular conjunctivae, with his dirty, sticky, rubber-gloved paws as though I were a low-grade steer. And if the old scoundrel touched a trachomatous conjunctiva a moment before, which is only too likely, or if Professor Hansen’s leprosy bacterium is still clinging to his rubber gloves, endangering not his but my epidermis, there’s not a thing I can do about it.”
And where does all this remarkable – if overwrought and remorselessly self-centered – thinking take Letham? Spared from death because of his wartime service, instead sentenced to exile on a tropical island, he does good work as an epidemiologist in an area ravaged by yellow fever. And he engages in fairly complex human relationships as well as trenchant scientific observations: “Anything that can be found without difficulty today, now that science has already discovered the easy things, is usually wrong.” Yet it would be overstating and simplifying this lengthy novel to say that Letham somehow seeks redemption in his work, much less finds it, for he is neither sure that he needs redemption nor that there is any to be had. As it turns out, the book itself is Letham’s attempt to make his mark in the world (and in his own mind) by providing an analytical case study of…himself. Thus, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer becomes self-referential to the point of navel gazing; but there is no peace to be found in it, and what insights it provides are strictly at the “meta” level – available, that is, to readers of Letham’s book, which is Weiss’ book, which becomes, finally, a reader’s journey to harrowing places, both within and without, to which, thankfully, few people will ever have to go in their mundane lives.» - transcentury

«Once, a Hungarian physician by the name of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweiss (1818-1865) took it upon to himself to investigate the causes of childbed fever in the maternity ward of Vienna’s largest hospital. There, in the cramped, squalid quarters where the poor gave birth—the rich birthed at home, delivered by professional midwives—mortality rates for mothers were as high as 35 percent. Semmelweiss theorized that patients were being killed by medical students, who came to deliver babies directly from the operating room or dissecting table; from performing surgeries or autopsies on patients with terrible diseases. He proved this by having students wash their hands in chlorinated bleach before entering the obstetrical clinic. The number of fatalities dropped, but the simplicity of this solution so annoyed the doctor’s colleagues that Semmelweiss was stripped of his credentials, and the mortality rate soared once again.
I’ve often imagined how this little morality tale would have been turned into a story by various writer-physicians. Dr. Anton Chekhov would have written a subtle but sorrowful account of logical injustice, administering to his pained women the anodyne of peasant humor. Dr. Louis-Ferdinand Céline would have written it louder and angrier, its ironies punctuated with insistent exclamation marks. As it is, in 1924 Céline, then known by his birthname, Destouches, produced a thesis titled The Life and Work of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweiss (practicing in Paris’s impoverished Montmartre, Céline’s specialty was also obstetrics). In the early days of its modernity, medicine was as much science as art, and Céline’s doctoral thesis was as significant medically as it was literarily: it asserted that what we call objective tragedy is just an instance of subjective ignorance, a refusal to recognize our failings.
Situated somewhere between the two, between Chekhovian understatement and Céline’s shocked histrionics, we would find the treatment by Ernst Weiss, a doctor and writer from Austro-Hungary. His Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, has just been published in English nearly 80 years after its German debut and, in terms of character and plot, it can be read as an extreme transference of the Semmelweissian figure: Weiss’s hero, the eponymous Letham, is such a competent, dedicated scientist that he is imprisoned—though, unlike Semmelweiss, as the author’s subtitle tells us, Letham’s zeal for free research has led him to murder.
Ernst Weiss—like not only Chekhov and Céline but also like Arthur Schnitzler, William Carlos Williams and, if we must, Michael Crichton—was a physician and creative writer, and he, more than any of his peers, found a way to integrate the disciplines. The best of his books concern medicine and medical workers: doctors, nurses, patients, doctors and nurses becoming patients, and test subjects both witting and not. Weiss was born in 1882 outside Brünn, Austro-Hungary, now Brno, Czech Republic, and grew up in towns throughout Moravia and, later, in Prague and Vienna, where he obtained his medical degree in 1908. After practicing in Berne, Berlin, and Vienna (in the last under Dr. Julius Schnitzler, Arthur’s brother), he contracted tuberculosis, and went to recover on voyages aboard the liner Austria to India and Japan. In the correspondence of Joseph Roth, a fellow chronicler of European infirmity, Weiss is described as “a man who traveled to the coasts of foreign lands as a ship’s doctor without setting foot on land, and who stayed in his cabin in order to write.”
Upon his return to Prague in 1913, Weiss made an impression on another Empire luminary, Franz Kafka. Here is a selection of Kafka’s diary entries about Weiss:
“Jewish physician, typical Western European Jew, to whom one therefore feels instantly close.” (7/1/1913) “Artificial constructions in Weiss’ novel. The strength to abolish them, the duty to do so. I almost deny experience.” (12/8/1913)
Here Kafka is referring to Weiss’ first novel, Die Galeere, or The Galley, which concerns a radiologist and is among the first texts, literary or scientific, to link x-ray radiation with cancer. After a wartime career as a military physician, for which he was awarded a Gold Cross for bravery, Weiss settled into practice in Prague with his wife, Rahel Sanzara (a pseudonym for Johanna Bleschke), a dancer, actress, and novelist. In 1921 they moved to Berlin, but Weiss returned to Prague alone in 1933 to tend to his dying mother. Between 1913 and the end of his life, Weiss wrote nearly 20 novels, including Der Augenzeuge, or The Eyewitness.
That book, written in 1938, published posthumously in 1963, concerns a German veteran of World War I, referred to as A.H., obviously Adolf Hitler. A.H., suffering from “hysterical blindness,” is committed to a military hospital. Hitler himself was diagnosed with just such a condition, hysterische Blindheit, at the military hospital at Pasewalk in 1918, and Weiss is said to have had access to Hitler’s medical file, which was smuggled to Paris for safekeeping by Hitler’s wartime psychiatrist, Dr. Edmund Forster. (It is, of course, indecently funny to imagine Hitler submitting himself to Freud’s discipline, that derided “Jewish science.”) It was in Paris that Weiss lived after the death of his mother in 1934. On June 14, 1940, the Nazis invaded, and the writer either ingested poison or overdosed on barbiturates. But, curiously for a physician, the amount he took of either substance was not sufficient, nor was the subsequent slashing of his wrists immediately effective; his suicide was successful only 24 hours later.
George Letham is only the fourth book of Weiss’ to be published in English (The Eyewitness, The Aristocrat, and Franziska preceded it), but it is the longest and most characteristic. Its 500 pages tell the story of a man who, in order to end his unhappy marriage and so to immerse himself in research, injects his older, wealthier, well-insured wife with a lethal poison known as Agent Y, then proceeds to botch a cover-up: The man leaves the syringe at the crime scene, and he immediately rushes off to confess to his father, a powerful official in municipal bureaucracy. (It sometimes seems as if all fathers in Austro-Hungarian fiction are “powerful officials in municipal bureaucracies.”) Letham, after being underserved by an inept lawyer, is sentenced to a tropical penal colony ravaged by Yellow Fever, known in the book as Y.F. (Joel Rotenberg’s translation is occasionally disappointingly faithful.) There, as prisoner, he finds the professional purpose that was unavailable to him in civilian life, as he begins to search for the origins of the epidemic. Formerly an isolated technician, in the colony he’s forced to interact with patients, especially with a young beautiful Portuguese girl—in addition to convicted murderers, rapists, thieves and, what’s worse, benign homosexuals such as his cellmate, March. (Georg Letham is notable among period novels for being entirely uneuphemistic in its treatment of homosexuality.)
Gradually, a mosquito—either Stegomyia calopus, or Stegomyia fasciata—is identified as the carrier of Y.F., and by novel’s end that insect is eradicated while the narrator, the wife-murdering Letham, insists on not being credited for his service to humanity. Indeed, as soon as Y.F. is neutralized, the book concludes, and Letham disappears, along with unresolved subplots about rat-catching (rats being the terrene version of mosquitoes, perhaps), expeditions to claim the North Pole, and the malevolence of paternal love.
Georg Letham is essentially an exploration of medical ethics—of what the limits of research can be. Is it ethical to perform experiments on animals? Is it ethical to perform experiments on people? Is it more ethical or less ethical to experiment on prisoners? These questions are not so much implied in the text as sincerely asked; this is a first-person-book, and Letham has no compunction about rhetorically, and even non-rhetorically, stating his concerns. Though writers today have convinced themselves of a greater sophistication than this, and tend to bury their philosophy within the flesh of their narratives, Weiss’s primitive address remains overwhelming: it doesn’t seek to fool or numb us with art; rather, it pushes us to consider and answer these questions, as opposed to just flattering us for having discovered these questions embodied in the characters and scenes of a novel.
Georg Letham itself is an experiment: it wants to investigate how fiction can, like a mosquito or rat, transmit the pathogen of fact; and how art can analgesce man’s relationship to nature. Reading Weiss, we’re reminded that the laws of nature are not the suggestions and insights of literature—natural law is infinitely more stark and remorseless—and that the truths of science cannot be refracted or bent; they can only, per Semmelweiss, be ignored. It was Weiss’ depressive achievement that he took these truths—the truths of infection, and disease—and, recognizing the peril of ignoring them, repurposed them as test cases: to demonstrate, through novels of exceptional directness, how fallibly we humans respond to the ultimate fact of our mortality.» - Joshua Cohen

«How could I, Georg Letham, a physician, a man of scientific training, of certain philosophical aspirations, let myself be so far carried away as to commit this crime of the gravest sort, the murder of my wife?
And that is Ernst Weiss' opening sentence to his 560 page novel, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer. Weiss was an Austrian born Jew, a physician, a ship's doctor and longtime friend of Franz Kafka. A man who witnessed enough of life's harsh realities, he settled into writing as a search for the meaning of life and it's unpredictable challenges to our ethics as individuals. When you begin a novel with a crime, or admission to a crime, you know that you are in store for a psychological journey into the heart and mind of the character. Highly influenced by the Expressionist movement, Ernst Weiss places under the microscope the emotional life of Georg Letham for us to examine. With this microscopic eye, the reader is presented with a reductive persona, a sketch in black and white, who morphs into a complex character full of emotional variegation and contradictions. Pulled in by Weiss' imaginative prowess, each character introduced seems to be the beginning of novel that is equally compelling as the one we are reading. The rich characters and their association with Georg gives us a constantly changing perception of an unreliable narrator. What isn't more compelling than the unsteady voice of a murderer who suppresses his guilt complex? Whose arrogance is so overwhelming at the onset that we are once repulsed and fascinated? A character so indifferent to his own fate that we are forced to care about it for him? Characters like this throw down in front of us the literary gauntlet - can you read about my egregious behavior, quickly learn to hate me and still stick with me until I have told my side of the story? We certainly can. True, Weiss' work could have been edited and trimmed of a hundred pages. But the novel in the end doesn't suffer from the narrative fat because of the strength of Weiss' narrator.
Weiss paints Georg in the beginning as a non-emotional bacteriologist who is focused solely on his lab work. He makes a somewhat decent living as a doctor in a small community, he marries a woman older than him, and he has a woman on the side for pleasure. He begins gambling and he spirals deeper and deeper into debt. His intellect is no match for fate and he begins to lose patients at his clinic, his mistress becomes distraught and his lab work suffers. The only way out seems to be to kill his wife for her money. Of course he does, and of course he gets caught. This is a man who knows nothing of love or ethics:
I was happy. But not at ease. In the bedroom I turned on the light once more and got a clean hand towel from my wife's small bathroom, which was charmingly done in almond green and pale pink. I spread it over the still uncovered part of my dead wife's face. Then I turned back the coverlet and spread the towel over her throat and chest as well. The window was still open, the hot, moist breeze caught in the dry, bright linen, lifting it where it swelled over the curves of the chest. Rhythmic rising and falling. But I knew what was what. I turned out the light. In a built-in wardrobe, the wood suddenly contracted with a sharp crack.
But how did he get this way? With a cargo ship full of father issues, Georg is set up to easily be steered down the road of deviant behavior. His mother dies early and his left with his older brother and sister, his oppressive father(also a physician), and a desire to connect with someone. During his childhood, he doesn't find anyone who piques his interest until he meets Walter, a handsome and intelligent fellow student in his medical classes. He has a old-fashioned man crush on Walter, who figures more prominently later in the novel:
In the strangest way, for which there are no words, I felt attracted toward this student Walter. As the patient beyond saving is to the doctor, perhaps. But what does one have to do with the other? Nothing. Beyond God could not make sense of it.
Many times in the novel, Georg is faced with and often plays with homosexual leanings. He doesn't condone it and he doesn't condemn it and perhaps even exploits it. Weiss doesn't emphatically make it known that this is a psychological reaction to the cold indifference exhibited by his father, but the equation that Weiss lays out definitely offers this as a possible answer. Frequently, he is empathetic towards March who is homosexual and his closest friend during his prison term. Since this novel was written in the early 20th century, the frankness with which Weiss deals with homosexuality is daring. March, whom Georg nicknames Gummi Bear(!), is in prison for accidentally murdering a cadet that he loved. Georg then becomes the object of his affection and his devoted servant. Georg accepts this and even canoodles with March, admitting that it makes him feel better. Georg also makes derisive comment about March and his proclivities, but then immediately feels remorse for doing so. This highlights the contradiction in his character, a cold and calculating physician and murderer, and also shows the evolution of Georg's capacity for emotion.
It would be faulty to feel completely manipulated by the plot...and Weiss tells us so:
I will now be extremely brief, despite the fact that what follows, what I wish to get out of the way in this chapter, the eleventh, is the bread and butter of that literary genre considered the most enthralling in our era, namely, the detective novel. What I am actually concerned with is facts, facts such as the facts of the "torpedo," which date back at least fifteen years now and which my father plays a starring role, and then facts that did not come to light until after my sentencing, and those later facts surrounding, the figure of that friend (as I have actually only been able to call him since he ceased to be one) of my youth, Walter. Most of the novel is about Georg's prison life on colony 'C' where yellow fever kills many of it's inhabitants. Put to work in the hospital to treat yellow fever patients, Georg is works under the direction of Dr. Carolus and strangely enough, his old friend Walter. Georg gets March to work alongside him as the team of four tries to figure out the destructive nature of the virus. Even with the horrific settings he is forced to live in, he is unfettered in his desire to work in the lab and to find the cure for the virus:
A stench for which there is no name, so nauseating and intolerable that the demonic imagination of a Dante could not have conceived it, assaulted us from the small, electrically lighted, relatively cool underground room. March clutched me with a low cry. Even the leathery, phlegmatic Carolus trembled all over. Only Walter and I did not lose our composure.
Through the unrelenting battle to figure out this disease, many things happen in the lives of these men, and obviously, particularly Georg. There are not tremendous external events, but mostly shifts in his emotional life that allow the reader to consider granting redemption to Georg Letham. Thematically, we are bombarded with the presence of rats and ethics. Not only using rats as a subject of experimentation, but even providing a story in which rats rebel against humans and only Georg's father (and two others) survives. All the characters ethics are challenged and in such a way that it becomes difficult to discern right or wrong. Even when we know they have done wrong, we are led to believe that their ethics are still basically in tact and that their behavior will change.
Weiss fled to Paris to escape the Nazis, but killed himself once the city had been invaded in 1940. And perhaps because Weiss couldn't escape who he was, a Jewish man, then that is why his novels seemed to mirror the struggle for the character to escape who they are. What makes Georg Letham so fascinating is not that he is a murderer, but that he knows this and is still plagued with a compulsion to contribute to humanity by curing the yellow fever virus. He kills for money, but when stripped of the need for money and forced to live, he becomes more of a human being.
This novel belongs with the luminaries of Expressionist literature, namely Kafka. Amongst the riches of life, Georg Letham murders. Amidst the miserable poverty of life, he discovers his soul. We are challenged to believe or not believe, but in the end it doesn't matter because we are convinced he deserves to live.» - Salonica World Lit

«Ernst Weiss. Or rather: Ernst Weiß, with the proper sharp ß.
He was born 28 August 1882, in Weinberg, near Brünn (now Brno).
Weiß studied medicine, graduating in 1908. He practiced in Berne, Berlin, and Vienna (under Professor Julius Schnitzler, the brother of Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler). Reconvalescing after contracting tuberculosis he became ship's doctor aboard the ocean-liner Austria, travelling to India and Japan.
In 1913 his first novel, Die Galeere, was published. It had been rejected by twenty-three publishers.
Franz Kafka helped him edit it.
Weiß would go on to publish over a dozen novels, as well as stories, plays, and reviews. Among his publishers were S.Fischer, Kurt Wolff, Ernst Rowohlt, Propyläen Verlag, Ullstein, Zsolnay, and the Amsterdam exile-publisher, Querido.
Weiß achieved considerable critical success.
He was awarded a silver medal in the literary competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics (when they still did that sort of thing) for Boëtius von Orlamünde (later re-published as: Der Aristokrat). He won the Adalbert Stifter prize for it as well.
He achieved a measure of popular success, but never attained complete financial security. Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig were among those that helped support him in the late 1930s.
Ernst Weiß returned to Prague in 1933 to care for his dying mother.
He emigrated to Paris after her death in 1934
Weiß had an enduring, tempestuous relationship with the actress and author Rahel Sanzara. She died in 1936.
In 1938 Weiß submitted a manuscript, Der Augenzeuge, for a literary competition sponsored by the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom. He would achieve some additional posthumous renown with this Hitler novel when it was finally published in 1963.
Originally published as Der Augenzeuge, the publishers were forced to stamp a new title - Ich, der Augenzeuge - across the cover after a competing publisher instituted legal proceedings, having just published a translation of Alain Robbe-Grillet's Le Voyeur under the same title.
Weiß hoped that winning the literary competition would help him to obtain a visa for the United States.
Arnold Bender won the competition.
Weiß remained in Paris.
On 14 June 1940 the Germans marched into Paris.
Weiß tried to take his life the same day.
He died 15 June 1940.
Weiß has not completely disappeared from view.
His books continued to be republished after his death, culminating in Suhrkamp's 1982 publication of the 16-volume edition of the collected works (edited by Peter Engel and Volker Michels). Not all of the volumes remain in print, but Suhrkamp continues to reissue some of these titles.
Weiß nevertheless remains underappreciated.
Numerous serious German literary histories completely ignore him.
Few of his works have been translated.
The breadth of Weiß' work - from exemplary Expressionistic works to naturalist novels, and including socially critical and politically prescient fiction - and the quality of the best of his writing should ensure that he will not be entirely forgotten, that he will resurface again.
The works are uneven. Weiß didn't stick to the styles and subjects that brought him success. He was always moving on and ahead. He never shied away from experimentation. He insisted on it. Eventually, usually, he got it oh so right.
His Hitler-novel The Eyewitness (Der Augenzeuge) remains widely read.
His Georg Letham (1931) is one of the great novels of that time.
Other works are also highly acclaimed: The Aristocrat (Boëtius von Orlamünde / Der Aristokrat), the crime-reportage Der Fall Vukobrankovics, Der Verführer (dedicated to -- and gratefully accepted by - Thomas Mann). Others, too.
Even the lesser period-pieces are rich in description, stylish, daring. Almost all particularly effectively convey the difficult period between the wars.
Weiß remains best known as an acquaintance of Franz Kafka.
Even in this role he seems to be only grudgingly accepted. Biographers from Max Brod on barely deign to mention him in their official records.
As with others (Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth) Weiß was a close friend, but not the closest. Some distance always seemed to remain.
Weiß apparently played the role of intermediary in some of Kafka's complicated romantic affairs. Perhaps people found (and find) this off-putting.
Kafka and Weiß first met at the end of June 1913. They were of about the same age, with similar interests and similarities in their backgrounds.
Kafka eagerly helped Weiß edit his first novel, Die Galeere (about a radiologist).
It was a fruitful collaboration for both parties. Weiß recognized Kafka's talents and how they could complement his own. He was receptive to Kafka's suggestions without falling completely under Kafka's experience-denying spell. Die Galeere hardly became a Kafkaesque novel -- it is, through and through, a Weiß-work-- but Kafka's sensibilities helped shape it into the fine novel that it is.
Kafka, too, gained: learning how to shape a work very different from his own, learning how to justify his artistic vision to one who had an equally strong one. Learning how to work with writing that could not be simply dismissed or destroyed or begun over (because Weiß would not permit any of these courses).
Kafka sincerely admired much of Weiß' work as well. "It is splendid", he wrote about Die Feuerprobe (in a letter to Max Brod, January, 1924).
They were kindred spirits, complementing one another while also always maintaining a certain distance. Each had complex relationships with women -- and, tellingly, each allowed the other into this very private sphere. Neither was a simple man to deal with -- Weiß, certainly, had a reputation of being fairly disagreeable -- and yet they were true friends.
...Ten years after Weiß' death, in October 1950, Thomas Mann wrote to American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, on behalf of Weiß' heirs, suggesting that Georg Letham be translated into English and published by Knopf:
I am writing to you in this matter because I have always been a sincere admirer of the great narrative talent of Ernst Weiss, and have often come out for him in the days before Hitler. I never met him personally, but there existed a kind of friendship by correspondence between us. Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka.
...In a letter to Hölderlin-scholar Pierre Bertaux (7 March 1929) Joseph Roth wrote:
Ernst Weiß, about whom you write, is more a type, if you knew Prague and the Jews of the old Austria better. He is a man from the ghetto. A man who travelled to the coasts of foreign lands as a ship's doctor without setting foot on land, and who stayed in his cabin in order to write. An intellect that is ashamed to be an intellect and, without knowing it, plays a "folie". It seems to me that this man is incompetent, paralyzed and childish, not advancing out of puberty and gleefully holding on to it. Read his book Nahar and Tiere in Ketten. You will see that this immensely talented author went along with the Expressionistic fashion without suffering and only out of shame of "normality". He never had courage. He was always ashamed of having courage. Courage is a brother of reason and Ernst Weiß clung to "folie". He was a German poet. His best is the novella 'Franta Slin'.
...Bertolt Brecht saw the original production of Weiß' 1923 tragi-comedy Olympia. Like critic Alfred Kerr, Brecht did not like it: "hysterische Kuhscheiße" he called it in a reassuring letter to Arnolt Bronnen (March 1923). "Hysterical cowpat", in Ralph Mannheim's decorous translation. But Brecht meant: cowshit, pure and simple.
In Weiß' early autobiographical Fragment der Kindheit (Fragment of Childhood) the fictionalized family name is: Frankenstein. He makes himself the offspring, the creation of a Frankenstein - though here named Edgar, not Adam.
...Ernst Weiß was an important writer. He achieved success, but never great success. He remained second choice, an author of note but one that could be put aside, for the moment or for longer.
It was something basic to his nature, to manage to be overlooked in this manner.
Even anonymity couldn't make a difference: he submitted his manuscript under a pen-name for the literary competition sponsored by the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom in 1938 and still couldn't come out ahead.
His visa application was in the same batch as Anna Seghers'. She received one. He didn't.
Some people have all the luck. Good or bad.
Ernst Weiß was not a comfortable author
He was not a comfortable person.
But many admired his work: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Oskar Loerke, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka.
And many admired him, too, even if it was a grudging sort of respect.
And he was a true friend to some.
Several of Weiß' works are remarkable, and his entire oeuvre is of interest. Closely associated with the Expressionist movement, he also moved far beyond that.
Mann found his work very Austrian, but Weiß -- a long-time Berlin resident -- also acutely described the specifically German misere. He bridged the writing of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig (coming from the deepest Austro-Hungarian tradition) and that of Alfred Döblin and Jakob Wassermann (with their more German and social focus).
Döblin is his only contemporary that produced a similarly rich and varied oeuvre (while also covering similar territory).
"Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka", Thomas Mann judged. Such comparisons are difficult to make: Weiß' output, as a whole, is much broader. Kafka's is more compact -- and appears much deeper.
But, yes, Weiß deserves his place as one of the German-language authors of the first half of the 20th centuries that simply can not be overlooked. Try as the fates might.» - M.A.Orthofer


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