Peter Weiss suggests that meaning lies in embracing resistance, no matter how intense the oppression, and that we must look to art for new models of political action and social understanding. Intimidating, exhiliratingly strange, compelling, and original


Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1: A Novel, Trans. By Joachim Neugroschel, Duke University Press, 2005.

"A major literary event, the publication of this masterly translation makes one of the towering works of twentieth-century German literature available to English-speaking readers for the first time. The three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance is the crowning achievement of Peter Weiss, the internationally renowned dramatist best known for his play Marat/Sade. The first volume, presented here, was initially published in Germany in 1975; the third and final volume appeared in 1981, just six months before Weiss’s death.
Spanning the period from the late 1930s to World War II, this historical novel dramatizes anti-fascist resistance and the rise and fall of proletarian political parties in Europe. Living in Berlin in 1937, the unnamed narrator and his peers—sixteen- and seventeen-year-old working-class students—seek ways to express their hatred for the Nazi regime. They meet in museums and galleries, and in their discussions they explore the affinity between political resistance and art, the connection at the heart of Weiss’s novel. Weiss suggests that meaning lies in embracing resistance, no matter how intense the oppression, and that we must look to art for new models of political action and social understanding. The novel includes extended meditations on paintings, sculpture, and literature. Moving from the Berlin underground to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War and on to other parts of Europe, the story teems with characters, almost all of whom are based on historical figures. The Aesthetics of Resistance is one of the truly great works of postwar German literature and an essential resource for understanding twentieth-century German history."

"The Aesthetics of Resistance is centrally important to any kind of assessment of twentieth-century German history.”—James Rolleston

Ästhetik des Widerstands, that thousand-page work of fiction which he began when he was well over fifty, making a pilgrimage over the arid slopes of our cultural and contemporary history in the company of pavor nocturnus, the terror of the night, and laden with a monstrous weight of ideological ballast, is a magnum opus which sees itself, almost programmatically, not only as the expression of an ephemeral wish for redemption, but as an expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time." - W.G.Sebald

"Yes, The Aesthetics of Resistance is intimidating. But it is also exhiliratingly strange, compelling, and original. Readers who dare enter this demanding verbal landscape will not come away empty-handed." - Mark M. Anderson

"Arguably one of the most demanding works of modern German literature, Weiss's tome has no linear narrative development, no clear beginning, middle or end, no chapter breaks, few paragraph breaks and no clear plot lines. (...) Like the work of Brecht and other old-guard leftist writers, Weiss's Aesthetics seems, on occasion, rather anachronistic. The questions it addresses -- what role, for instance, the artist should play in the class struggle -- are so deeply rooted in the time when Weiss wrote that his novel cries out not only for linguistic translation but also for a kind of historical and political translation; the latter, it turns out, is more difficult." - Noah Isenberg

"The monuments of modernism today rise like Ozymandias’ statue in the sand: Ulysses, Proust, Beckett, Pound’s Cantos, The Making of Americans, The Waste Land. At last, we have an English translation of a work that stands alongside them." - Robert Buckeye

"As his cumbersome title indicates, this is a tract about the aesthetics of radicalism, about the proper concordance (if there can be one) between the arts and the state of the common man. (...) What matters is the interminable prosiness, the humourless, self-inflating didacticism of Weiss' homily. With the exception of a few saving flashes -- the museum-visit with which the book opens, a few snapshots of the Berlin pavements as the Nazi hoodlums tide forward, an orange-fragrant nocturne in Spain -- this pedagogic memoir is a morass." - George Steiner

"The Aesthetics of Resistance, a novel of striking intellectual power that explores Weiss's "search for himself," combines the wishful thinking of a fictional biography of his life as it should have been with a history of how fascism was resisted in Spain, in the cities of exile, and most important, in the Berlin underground." - Peter Demetz

"Die Ästhetik des Widerstands represented the culmination of the career of an author who always stood on the fringes of the German literary scene (.....) Already unfashionable when the work appeared, the collapse of East European socialism has made it even more so. Nevertheless, its magnificent "epic" qualities, which link it to the great philosophical novels of the earlier part of the 20th century, surely mark it as a milestone in postwar German literature." - J.H.Reid

"The masterly three-part novel, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, first published between 1975 and 1981, is one of the highpoints of twentieth century German literature, and still stands as the most significant German novel published after The Tin Drum (only Arno Schmidt's late, unwieldy works challenge it for that position). The first part has been translated (by Joachim Neugroschel), but there is currently no publisher for this book. (Excerpts of the translation have appeared in recent years.)
A large and complex work, the focus of the novel is the time from the late thirties into World War II - though there is no strict chronology in the novel, and there are many varied essayistic digressions. Weiss uses historical facts and a huge number of personages as the basis for his novel. The central characters, insofar as there are any, are the members of a small resistance group (called "Red Orchestra" by the Nazis). The group was active until late 1942 when most of the members were captured and executed (after being tortured), scenes that Weiss vividly captures.
An unnamed narrator - a Weiss-like figure - tells the story. It is not, however, a simple narrative, beginning with its challenging opening section, a lengthy, precise, and evocative descriptive section on the Pergamon altar, a stunning relief piece taken from Greece and installed in a Berlin museum. Art is central to the novel, as Weiss returns again and again to the aesthetics of the title. Géricault's Raft of the Medusa is another piece discussed at length, opening the second volume. Angkor, Picasso's Guernica, socialist realist painting, and Goya - to name only a few - also find their place.
Weiss - himself a very talented painter - masterfully accomplishes the difficult task of representing the visual arts in a literary work. Literature - Dante's Divine Comedy, Kafka, among others - are also strong presences.
But Weiss places it all in a context of history. He presents detailed and impressive histories of proletariat organizations -- as well a history of Spain, of Sweden, and discussions of Greek mythology. And World War II and the resistance against fascism are naturally the spectres constantly hovering throughout the book. The mass of material sounds intimidating and overwhelming, but it is not. Weiss' goal here was to bridge a gap between high art and the common man, to illustrate that art can (and should) serve man in his political struggle.
Weiss, a true socialist (though hardly of the Soviet persuasion), presents a political and aesthetic agenda that is anathematic to modern America. His lofty ambition, expertly conveyed, seems particularly distant in this time, only a few decades after he wrote the book. Nevertheless, The Aesthetics of Resistance proves that a book can be political and convince aesthetically. Weiss does more than that even: his novel is a superior piece of art, a fusion of subject, content, and presentation that succeeds on every level.
Passive Americans (and their now hardly less passive European brethren) are unlikely to be able to do much with Weiss' exhortation to resistance and activity, but the book is so accomplished that even those that can do nothing with its underlying message should enjoy it. Of course, few people enjoy the true literary tour de force any longer, and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands is as forceful as fiction comes, but not to have read it is to have missed one of the great artistic visions of recent times.
There is no doubt that this is one of the "books of the century", however one might want to define that. Readers should know that it is a complex work - but that it is also immensely rewarding. Highly recommended." - The Complete Review

"In a museum in Berlin in 1937, three young communists — the unnamed narrator and his friends Coppi and Heilmann — contemplate the Pergamon Frieze. They walk back to Coppi's apartment, where they continue their debates about art and politics along with his parents. The narrator then returns to his own apartment and talks to his father — or remembers conversations with him — about his experiences as an activist; they have taken different sides in the divide between Communists and Social Democrats. While waiting to go to Spain to fight, the narrator tries to help a retarded Jewish man being beaten by teenagers.
And that's pretty much all the foreground story in Part I of The Aesthetics of Resistance; it could be fitted into half a dozen pages. This is just a framework, however, on which Weiss hangs a panoply of artistic and political and historical debates and monologues. A stunning description of the Pergamon Frieze. A reanalysis of Heracles as a revolutionary. A discussion of the narrator's family's books and the problems facing workers trying to study and appreciate art. A study of how painting broadened its subject material to include peasants and workers, and of the extent to which bourgeois art is relevant to socialists. An account of the brief-lived socialist republic of Bremen. Debates over cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats, readiness for revolution, and the Moscow Trials. A critical analysis contrasting Kafka's The Castle and Neukrantz' Barricades in Wedding.
Part II, with the narrator in Spain, proceeds similarly, though with more in the foreground. A brief account of crossing the border into Spain is followed by an excursus on Gaudi's Sagrada Familia and travel from Barcelona to the headquarters of the International Brigades at Albacete. Because of some medical training the narrator ends up working in hospitals at Cueva and then Denia, under Max Hodann.
There are some details of hospital administration and the management of peasants and patients, and Hodann's ideas about sexual hygiene and freedom get a mention, but the story is dominated by debates over how tightly Party discipline must be enforced. Looming over this is the recent suppression of anarchists and independent Marxists (and the killing of Andrés Nin) and the existence of a United Front with socialist and bourgeois parties. There's one set piece debate at a meeting of leaders — Hodann, Ilya Ehrenburg, Willi Bredel, and Karl Mewis, among others — and a chilling, understated climax when one of the narrator's too outspoken colleagues is taken away by the military police.
There's no direct account of battle. This is approached indirectly, through conversations with the journalist Nordahl Grieg and the historian Lindhoek, working on a history of the Thälmann brigade; they face the challenge of reporting and writing during an undecided struggle. Listening to the radio, in the same weeks they and the narrator follow the perilous military situation of the Republic, the trial of Bukharin in Moscow, and the German incorporation of Austria. A letter from Heilmann returns the narrator to the myth of Heracles; while the International Brigades are being disbanded he looks back to Phocaea, the ancient Greek colonies and mines in Spain, and the history of Spain down to the present. And, as the narrator prepares to leave Spain, he and a friend Ayschmann explore Picasso's Guernica and paintings by Delacroix and Géricault and Goya; he also looks back at some of the paintings his father educated him with, contrasting the work of Menzel and Koehler.
It needs some examples to give a feel for Weiss' style. Here is the famous opening sequence describing the Pergamon Altar:
"All around us the bodies rose out of the stone, crowded into groups, intertwined, or shattered into fragments, hinting at their shapes with a torso, a propped-up arm, a burst hip, a scabbed shard, always in warlike gestures, dodging, rebounding, attacking, shielding themselves, stretched high or crooked, some of them snuffed out, but with a freestanding, forward-pressing foot, a twisted back, the contour of a calf harnessed into a single common motion. A gigantic wrestling, emerging from the gray wall, recalling a perfection, sinking back into formlessness. A hand, stretching from the rough ground, ready to clutch, attached to the shoulder across empty surface, a barked face, with yawning cracks, a wide-open mouth, blankly gaping eyes, the face surrounded by the flowing locks of the beard, the tempestuous folds of a garment, everything close to its weathered end and close to its origin..."
... and so on, for eight pages, in which there are just a few scattered sentences to set the scene in the museum and provide background on the three friends. (Weiss uses paragraph breaks only to divide sections, which are the only divisions within each part.)
And here's a brief interlude in the discussion of painting towards the end:
"But, asked Ayschmann, did you not always feel your disadvantage vis-à-vis the people who could pursue their studies unhindered. His words knocked me out of an equilibrium that I had claimed I possessed. My education had no solid underpinnings, it was acquired through sporadic readings. I could not produce a so-called Gymnasium degree. On the other hand, I had legitimized myself by laboring in workshops, warehouses, factories. For an instant I was hostile toward Ayschmann, who had laid claim to an academic formation entirely as a matter of course. I felt rebellious against his world, but then I was ashamed of my reaction, for his question was premised on the idea of solidarity."
Abstractions in The Aesthetics of Resistance are grounded in the specifics of the narrator's experiences or in analysis of individual artworks and books; and the narrator's limited knowledge and personal perspective are consistently maintained. Fascism is an everpresent menace, but remains in the background: uniformed figures in a museum, triumphant Nazi propaganda on the radio, Franco's armies pressing in on the Spanish Republic. Similarly with the communist hierarchy: there's only a glimpse of the International Brigades' leader André Marty, the prosecutors in the Moscow Trials, or the military police.
A fifty page introduction by Fredric Jameson sets Weiss in the context of post-war German literature, provides details of his life and background, and offers a sometimes abstruse theoretical analysis. For most novels such an introduction would be overkill, but here it seems appropriate.
Elements of The Aesthetics of Resistance are autobiographical: Weiss was of the same generation as his narrator, his parents also left Czechoslovakia for Sweden (though they were bourgeois rather than working class), and he too was mentored by Hodann. Weiss was not a communist as a youth, however — his late conversion to Marxism came in the 1960s — and he didn't fight in Spain, so his narrator is perhaps a vision of himself as he might have been. The artistic explorations also reflect a mature sophistication; they are not plausibly those of a twenty-year old, working class autodidact or not. The other characters are mostly historical figures, but fictionalised: a glossary provides some brief biographical information on the more prominent of the many that appear.
It's an extraordinary achievement, with its sustained stylistic virtuosity and integration into narrative of art criticism, politics, and history. But The Aesthetics of Resistance is not a novel which will command a wide audience. This is not because of Weiss' style, which is much easier to read than initial impressions might suggest. The problem is that the work demands an interest, preexisting or nascent, both in the politics of left wing parties and movements in pre-WWII Germany and Europe and in the relationship of socialism and art, especially pictorial art.
Those who are prepared for that, or willing to be challenged, will find plenty in The Aesthetics of Resistance. It might perhaps inspire an interest in the Spanish Civil War, or open up new perspectives on painting." - Danny Yee

"There are plenty of reasons not to read Peter Weiss’s monumental novel The Aesthetics of Resistance. It is long and difficult, filled with obscure references and intractable ideas. Few of its characters can easily be imagined or identified with. Its byzantine paragraphs stretch on for pages a time, sometimes containing only a single unrelenting sentence. The tradition from which the novel comes – the art and politics of the mid-century European left, with its utopias, its committees, its experiments – is moribund and almost forgotten. On top of all this, even twenty-five years after the book came out in German, the excellent recent English translation only gives us the first of three volumes; the translator was apparently so exhausted by this one that he declined the remaining two.
In spite and because of all this, the book gives a rich reward. There are many novels which convey the bitter experience of Europe’s twentieth century, but few which range so widely or reflect so deeply on that history.
The Aesthetics of Resistance is a historical novel of a sort: most of its hundreds of characters are based on actual figures, and historical events are what drive its narrator from 1930s Germany to civil war in Spain, exile in Sweden and on towards the Cold War. But this is neither a costume-drama, in which the past is served up for the consumption of the present, nor a dry rehearsal of ideas. Intellectual questions matter to Weiss only in relation to the pathos and dilemmas of everyday life. Old issues, of art vs. politics, theory vs. practice, words vs. images, reemerge with renewed urgency and freshness.
Despite his theatrical background, Weiss leavens the abstraction less with drama – there is not a line of direct dialogue – than with a painter’s eye for concrete visual detail. But there is a hint of showmanship in his virtuoso opening scene (excerpted below). The book opens in Berlin in 1936, where three members of the tiny, demoralized German opposition contemplate the Pergamon altar frieze, surely the greatest single piece of colonial booty ever crated back to Europe. For Weiss, the warring Gods and Titans rising from the blank stone do more than just represent the violence of the past: they contain it, while their beauty and strangeness simultaneously hide its reality from the present. In the living figures deciphering the work and learning how it was made, the book sees the glimmer of present and future hope. Of those figures, all but the narrator will die violently in the years to come." - Brían Hanrahan

"In his three-part novel, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance), published successively in 1975, 1978, and 1981, Peter Weiss accomplished for the working class what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar did for feminist theory in 1979 and what Edward Saïd did for postcolonial studies in 1994. That is, he provided a sweeping reinterpretation of major elements of the Western cultural canon from the point of view of a hitherto marginalized perspective. To read this novel is to experience a re-education; to be receptive to it is to undergo an intellectual transformation.
The novel has long enjoyed a prominent place in the German intellectual left. Now that the first volume is finally available from Duke University Press in a superb English translation by Joachim Neugroschel (with a readable and engaging foreword by Fredric Jameson), Weiss’s work can finally emerge into the wider public sphere where it deserves to occupy a prominent space.
Weiss’s monumental novel is, first of all, a Bildungsroman, a novel in which the inner development of the hero is portrayed. Secondly, this is a historical novel that depicts and discusses the history of the European left from 1918 to 1945. Weiss based his novel on extensive research, and his portrayals of leftist activists is a work of memorialization, an enterprise carried out against the forgetfulness of history, and in particular against the way that written history tends to discount the vanquished. Third, the novel is a meditation on the way that visual art and literature can represent dissident worldviews against hegemonic political and cultural configurations, thereby ultimately empowering resistance. All three levels are united by a common working-class milieu that expresses itself in the narrative voice (the working-class hero of the Bildungsroman), the perspective of German communist movements or of popular liberators (in the historical narrative), and the interrogation of art and literature for the purpose of seeing how it depicts popular struggle or, at the very least, represents class oppression.
First, the Bildungsroman. Here, the problems Weiss poses are the following: By what stages can a working-class person who chooses to define himself as an intellectual appropriate the European cultural legacy that heretofore has been understood as belonging to the elite? How does such a person find a voice? For whom or against whom does he speak? “Coming to writing,” as Weiss portrays his narrator’s trajectory, requires a reworking of Western culture from the point of view of class analysis, whether it be the Pergamum friezes, surrealism, Franz Kafka’s Castle, or Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Meduse.” The intellectual trajectory of the narrator (who remains nameless and is one of the only fictional characters of the work) is also the forging of a new pathway through familiar cultural monuments that the reader learns to see with new eyes. What is more, these discoveries are doubly exciting because the narrator is personally invested in them, in seeing how our cultural past matters for present struggles. The story of the writer’s awakening is also the story of how this work could be written. Unlike the heroes of his literary models (like the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks), he has no stable home, no originating place. Rather, he finds his home in the international class struggle (136). Another intertextual dimension is offered by the historical context. For example, in Vol. II, there are fascinating glimpses into the work habits of Bertolt Brecht, whose Swedish exile the narrator witnesses.
The second narrative line, the history of the European left, is threaded throughout the novel in the form of conversations with family, friends, co-workers and comrades-in-arms, in such a way that they become part of the work of memory necessary for the construction of a post-fascist world that could finally bring an end to working-class oppression. In Vol. I, we are offered a history of the Bremen uprising of 1918 from the point of view of the narrator’s father, who was a dockworker at the time. Vol. II gives us the Spanish civil war from behind the lines, at a military hospital (created in two successively requisitioned estate manors), and describes the anti-fascist activities of exiles who had taken a precarious refuge, first in Paris before the German occupation, then in neutral (but compromised) Sweden from 1939-44. Vol. III returns to Germany in 1942-45, and to the fate of (among others) the narrator’s two friends, Coppi and Heilmann, who were presented to us in the first pages of Vol. I. It is now five years later, and both are conspiring against the Nazi regime. Here the question of what can constitute German culture, of who will be able to speak for it after the war, begins to be discussed. Earlier, the narrator had remarked with some bitterness that the left could only unite when faced with the murderous opposition of Nazism; once the threat was removed, that unity fell apart once more. Those who stayed in Germany and actively fought the regime were decimated, robbing Germany of those who could have given it a new face after the war (239). On the other hand, the literature and art produced in exile was often formalistic, an escape rather than a confrontation with historical and political realities. Weiss’s presentation of the historical past within the format of conversations and even arguments makes history a part of “active memory” that can serve the future. In the final pages of the novel, the value of learning from the past (versus just going forward into a new future) is thrashed out in a debate between some of the surviving protagonists. German culture is shown to be in disarray, and soon to be further split by the geographical split of the country. Understanding The Aesthetics of Resistance would mean grasping how Weiss intends his work to make possible a new departure for German culture (as well as the culture of a reborn international left) on the basis of working through history, culture, and politics from a working-class perspective.
As the useful glossary by Robert Cohen at the back of the English translation makes clear, most of the characters and events in the novel are based on historical fact. One of Weiss’s projects is to rescue from oblivion people like Horst Heilmann (who was executed at the age of nineteen, after he had penetrated German military security and was passing information to the other side). The loss of those “who could have been the new face” of Germany after the war demands that the possibilities they offered be commemorated in a book, a book that can also make people want to act.4Aesthetics as resistance is the third, and central, topic of Weiss’s novel. The narrative begins with three friends (identified only by their last names) standing before the Pergamum friezes housed in Berlin’s Museum Island—Coppi and the narrator, both “already about twenty years old” and four years out of school, and Heilmann, the self-styled “Rimbaud” of the group, who is only 15. It’s September 22, 1937; Hitler is in power and Coppi has already spent a year in prison for distributing “writings inimical to the State.” The narrator is about to leave for Spain to fight with the partisans. They meet for one last time though they will remain united in spirit in the fight against fascism, which will take a fatal turn for two of them five years later, near the end of Vol. III. The friezes of the altar depict the mythical battle between the Olympian gods and the race of giants, sons of Gaia (Earth) who rebelled against Zeus. Brothers of the Titans, they attacked Olympus because Zeus had confined their brothers, the Titans, in Tartarus. The friezes show several contests from the battle, during which the giants fall in agony and defeat under the heel of the conquering Olympians. The three friends draw some surprising lessons from their museum visit, however. On the one hand they note the blank expression of the victorious gods in contrast to the pain and suffering expressed in the representation of the defeated rebels. Reflecting on the circumstance that the friezes were originally intended to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over their rebellious Gallic neighbors (the frieze was constructed under Eumenes II, who reigned from 195-159 BCE), the friends detect, in the very human representation of the vanquished, some sympathy for the common folk who, subjected and perhaps even enslaved, had to serve their Greek masters. Thus they “read” the frieze itself as an example of the aesthetics of resistance, imagining that the artists of the frieze were as eager to acknowledge the suffering of the oppressed population as to celebrate the elite who commissioned the work. Secondly, the friends focus on the figure of Herakles, who, according to myth, helped the gods to dispatch their enemies on this occasion, but later descended to earth and toiled among common mortals (the notorious twelve labors). In Herakles the three friends see the image of the liberator who becomes a role model for each of them as they engage the battle against fascism. The circumstance that almost no trace of their hero survives in the frieze (only the presence of his lion’s paw on the eastern frieze indicates his position next to Zeus) is interpreted by them as a sign that they must fill his place themselves.
It is characteristic of Weiss’s narrative style to mix different epochs and to explore parallelisms by using the device of dialogue. Once the Pergamum frieze has been discussed, it become a way of understanding the struggles of the present: just as the giants had nothing but stones and clumps of earth to fight with against gods who were heavily armed with spears and shields, the revolutionaries of 1918 also were unarmed against the forces that ultimately crushed them. Out of the friends’ discussion the insight emerges: “Heilmann said that works like those stemming from Pergamum had to be constantly reinterpreted until a reversal was gained and the earth-born awoke from darkness and slavery to show themselves in their true appearance” (44). This is to say that Weiss’s text manages to advance on all three levels at once, as cultural insights are applied to the ongoing political struggles and also feed the budding literary vocation of the narrator. For instance the long passages about Picasso’s “Guernica” are framed within a conversation among several members of the demobilized international brigade after the Republican defeat. As in the discussion around the Pergamum friezes, individual elements of the representation are translated into the iconography of ideological struggle: “we saw the Taurus as representing the endurance of the Spanish people, and the narrow-eyed, stiffly crosshatched horse as representing the hated war inflicted by fascism” (293). This technique of embedding close pictorial analysis within conversation allows Weiss to explore paintings in great detail, casting the reader into the role of a viewer. The effect of Weiss’s visually evocative prose is stunning, as picture after picture is conjured forth out of the text and endowed with a fresh meaning.
The translation by Joachim Neugroschel performs the difficult feat of preserving the integrity of Weiss’s style, characterized in this book by long sentences that often mix different historical periods and several different speakers. Like the Portuguese Nobel-prizewinning author José Saramago, Weiss prefers not to set off dialogue with diacritical marks, a technique that results in a flowing intermingling of present and past, of speech and narrative observation. Thus even stylistically, the novel accomplishes its work of memorialization by bringing memory forward into the present of the characters, an invitation to the reader to do the same for his/her own present when reading this account of 1918-45. This first volume also contains insights on modernist painting (dada, surrealism, and expressionism), Millet, and socialist realism, as well as the architect Gaudí; the authors discussed include Cervantes, Dante, Kafka (The Castle), Mayakovski, Heine, Hölderlin, Thomas Mann, and Brecht. But, until the next two volumes are translated, the reader will miss the equally fascinating discussions of Van Gogh, Eugène Sue, Restif de la Bretonne, Bruegel, Meisonnier, and Rimbaud, as well as the lengthy sections of Vol. II that give an insight into the Swedish exile of Brecht. Finally, the descriptions of the sculpture and architecture of Angkor Wat in Vol. III provide a kind of bookend to the conversations about the Pergamum sculptures that begin the novel.
As W.G. Sebald has noted in his essay on Weiss (published in English in the collection On the Natural History of Destruction), the art works that figure most prominently in The Aesthetics of Resistance are works that show humans in the extreme situation of war and/or impending death. Sebald argues that the novel, which Weiss intends as a work of memorialization, is actually a work of self-destruction. In support of this argument Sebald notes the narrator’s account of a painting of shipwreck by Géricault, “Raft of the Meduse,” in which a fragile raft of working-class survivors is about to be cut loose from the lifeboat peopled by the bourgeois class of passengers. Sebald quotes the narrator’s thought, as he stands before the painting at the Louvre in Paris, that Géricault was motivated to paint by a sense of the “unendurability of life.” Yet at the end of Vol. I, within the context of the partisans’ conversations, the raft is first explored as an allegory of their collective struggle: “the shipwrecked had formed a unity supported by each person’s hand, collectively they would now perish or collectively survive, and the fact that the waving man, the strongest among them, was an African, perhaps loaded on the Méduse to be sold as a slave, hinted at the thought of the liberation of all underdogs” (303). Sebald claims that the narrator “transfers himself” into Géricault’s pessimism, yet later in the same passage from Vol. II we can read: “and yet it had never been so clear to me, how in art values can be created which can overcome entrapment and the sense of being lost, how with the fashioning of visions, art tried to overcome melancholia.”7 Instead, Sebald wants to see the novel as a kind of intellectual suicide, in which “Peter Weiss wrecked what he knew was the little life remaining to him” (Weiss died in 1982 shortly after completing the third part of his novel).8 This is, in my view, to ignore the legacy of Weiss’s novel, which is an attempt to provide the foundation for a new cultural departure not only for Germany but for the aspirations of the international working-class.
With the departure of Brecht from Sweden at the end of Vol. II, Weiss’s narrator has completed his artistic apprenticeship. Major parts of Vol. III are no longer told in the first person, as we follow the fates of anti-fascist fighters who either have remained in Germany (like Coppi and Heilmann) or return there in order to join the underground (Lotte Bischoff). The lesson of Swedish exile is that mere survival in the face of the fascist threat is, literally, a dead end: the narrator’s mother, having made it to Sweden after witnessing many Nazi atrocities, withdraws into a silence that amounts to a self-imposed death sentence, while others commit suicide. Only a commitment to the struggle can assure psychic survival. This is, finally, the contemporary lesson Volker Braun draws from The Aesthetics of Resistance; in consequence he must be seen as the true heir to Weiss’s project of providing a new foundation for a culture of the left. Writing in the East German newspaper Neues Deutschland on the night of November 11, 1989, Braun speaks of the popular revolt in the German Democratic Republic as the greatest democratic movement in Germany since 1918. Despite the all-too-rapid assimilation of East Germany into the West, the possible future opened up in that moment remains a source of inspiration: “It was a moment of the becoming possible, the experience of active history-making…defeated as we are, we have tasted our own power, the power of the masses, we made a State disappear, we opened up the institutions. For one moment we remembered ‘the future,’ it existed.” For the German people to once more emerge from the defeat represented by the false hope of so-called “capitalist democracy” Braun proposes an “aesthetics of contradiction” (Widerspruch), a reformulation of Weiss’s “Widerstand” (resistance). Weiss’s novel, he says, constitutes a “quarry, an immense amount of material liberated for other generations.”11 Braun also remarks that a few days before his death Weiss wrote a letter in which he envisioned a “fourth world” of nonconformity, of existence outside of anything fixed, of institutions. For Braun, the Zapatista struggle embodies the ideal of such a world, the struggle “not for power but for the space within which every person can develop freely.” Like Weiss, Braun talks of art as a “strategy for survival” and like him also, he embraces the idea that art must be constructed out of contradictions and oppositions: “instead of ‘integration,’ the dichotomy of text and body, emotion and action.” It’s no accident that Weiss’s narrator praises the montage aesthetics of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, whose concept of editing stressed the conflict between successive images. This is the lesson that the narrator-as-writer learns from Brecht, monteur par excellence who is represented sitting passively in his studio, taking in the world around him, collating the information, drafts, and ideas contributed by visitors, lovers, and researchers into works which he then signs with his own name. More than 15 years before the revelations of Brecht’s collaborative writing style by John Fuegi, Weiss gives us a picture of “Brecht” as a composite author, a writers’ laboratory rather than a single individual. Weiss’s narrator also embraces this montage aesthetic, breaking apart the narrative with the essayistic disquisitions of his protagonists, and breaking into the protagonists’ speeches with remarks about the landscape through which they are walking, or about what’s happening outside the frame of the conversation.
Perhaps the most famous of all the passages in Weiss’s novel is Heilmann’s letter to his friend (the narrator) in the last hours before his execution. Sebald sees this as Weiss’s movement toward self-destruction: “It records an accumulated sense of the fear and pain of death, and must almost have exhausted its author; that account is the place from which Weiss, as a writer, does not return.” I don’t disagree that Weiss may have put himself in Heilmann’s place—but once again it is possible to read the letter as a “legacy statement” that looks toward the future rather than as evidence of defeat and exhaustion. Heilmann writes that “in remaining open to those who have gone before us, we honor those who come after.” In his insightful foreword to the English translation, Fredric Jameson notes that in the aftermath of German reunification and the end of the Cold War, the novel has an important role to play, not just for the constitution of a revised historical memory for Germany that would incorporate the experience of the German Democratic Republic, but also for “the reconstruction of a worldwide left vision of its vocation and its possibilities in a seemingly post-revolutionary world situation in which capitalism and the ever-expanding penetration of the free market are commonly felt to be henceforth unchallenged.” If Weiss’s testament work is to reach the broader audience of the international left, it is crucial that the project of translation be continued. The third and final volume may be even more important than the second, in that it records the relatively unknown story of the resistance fighters inside Germany during the war. Though the topic of The Aesthetics of Resistance is the defeat of popular movements, it nevertheless offers, as Volker Braun suggests, the broken pieces of a past that we can begin to put together in the fashioning of a future that will embody a popular, and therefore socialist, democracy." - Inez Hedges


Peter Weiss, The Investigation, Marion Boyars Publishers, 2000.

"The Investigation is a dramatic reconstruction of the Frankfurt War Crimes trials, based on the actual evidence given. This testimony, concerning Auschwitz and the atrocities which were enacted there, has been edited and extracted by Peter Weiss into a dramatic document that relies solely and completely on the facts for its effectiveness.
There is no artistic license, no manipulation of facts and figures, no rearrangement of events for theatrical effect. Nameless witnesses stand and recall their appalling memories of Auschwitz, allowing us to bear witness to their painful and painstaking search for truth and, ultimately, justice. What emerges is a chastening and purging documentary of deeply moving power."
"I've wanted to direct Peter Weiss's The Investigation since I first read it in translation in the mid-sixties. Weiss is better known for his brilliant Marat/Sade, a reinterpretation of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday as staged by the marquis de Sade with the inmates of the mental asylum at Charenton. It's an awesome play.
But The Investigation in its own way is as revolutionary as Marat/Sade. More germane to my concerns, it's fairly easily adaptable to Readers' Theater. The play is presented as a series of eleven "Songs." (They aren't sung songs, but rather prose -talked--songs. It's Brecht-Talk to call them "Songs".) Each song/scene details some aspect of the atrocities committed upon the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Most, perhaps all, of the text of the play is taken verbatim from the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials (November 20, 1945, to October 1, 1946), which tried German war criminals. If the parts in the play were not double-cast, it would require twenty-eight actors (two of them women). The play is also too long: it would have to be shortened.
The dialogue is chilling, made even the more so by being presented in so low a key. There's almost no action: witnesses ascend and leave the witness stand, the prosecuting attorney and the defense counsel wrangle before the judge. Some functionaries who collaborated in maintaining the camp system are called as witnesses. All of them deny knowledge of what took place, even of what they could read in account books or see from the windows of their workrooms. The accused are monsters, whether on the stand testifying or simply acting the boor in their seats. The bulk of the witnesses are the former prisoners: a woman forced to work as secretary for a Nazi boss who likes to beat prisoners to death, a political partisan subjected to torture and himself beaten near to death, mothers separated from husbands and children, never to hear of them again.
It's great theater. I'm considering it for a local Readers' Theater and I think it would work: the characters can be doubled to keep the cast size in bounds, there's no set to worry about and there's enough overlap to permit cutting. That's essential, because the play is quite long at 313 pages in print but the message cannot be weakened.
I have two concerns. The first is the emotional charge the testimony delivers. It's far from cocktail theater. People may experience feelings they'd rather not feel on an afternoon or evening entertainment junket. The second is whether the play is dated now: will its moral urgency seem out of date when expended on an injustice now sixty-five years past." - David Keymer

"The Investigation is Weiss' ruthless documentary drama of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which he attended. These proceedings, held in 1963-5, are not to be confused with the Nürnberg trials held right after the war. In Frankfurt it was the German government itself that held the war-crimes trial, focussing on the crimes perpetrated at Auschwitz.
Using the actual testimony of survivors from Auschwitz, testifying as witnesses against those who exploited them and others, Weiss creates a riveting drama. The drama is based on the trial, but Weiss insists that it should not be staged as a courtroom-docudrama:
In the presentation of this play, no attempt should be made to reconstruct the courtroom before which the proceedings of the camp trial took place. Any such reconstruction would, in the opinion of the author, be as impossible as trying to present the camp itself on the stage.
No names are used in describing the characters -- they appear merely as "Judge", "Witness", "Prosecuting Attorney", "Defendant" -- though the defendants do have corresponding names by which they are called. Weiss shapes the huge amount of material, reducing it to a compelling indictment of what happened at Auschwitz. The play is presented in eleven cantos, beginning with "The Platform" where the trains arrived, proceeding to "The Camp", and ending with two cantos on "Zyklon B" and then "The Firte Ovens".
The stark, largely anonymous portrayal of this unspeakable evil is very effective. Weiss carefully shaped the text, culling, cutting, and changing very little from the original transcripts to create what is truly a poetic text. His dramatic sense and lyric ear allowed him to create a text that is also literary, and can stand on those merits alone. But of course it is much more.
An important contribution to the literature about World War II, and an impressive drama in its own right.
The Investigation also comes across better in translation than the marred Marat/Sade (because of how language is presented and used in the play). The translation in the German Library edition is that of Jon Swan and Ulu Grosbard, as revised by Robert Cohen; there is also a translation by Alexander Gross (see links for excerpts). This German Library edition is the first complete translation of Weiss' definitive version of the play." - The Complete Review

Ecxerpt


Peter Weiss, The New Trial, Trans. by James Rolleston and Kai Evers, Duke University Press, 2001.

"The New Trial is Peter Weiss’s final drama, completed only months before his death in 1982 and never before published in English. One of Europe’s most important twentieth century playwrights—often considered as influential as Brecht and Beckett—Weiss is best known to American audiences as the author of the Broadway play Marat/Sade and the three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, which has elicited comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses and Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Initially influenced by Franz Kafka and later by the American Henry Miller, Weiss worked to expose the hypocrisy, the deception, and the nature of aggression in the contemporary world.
A transformative “updating” of Kafka’s novel The Trial, The New Trial presents a surreal, hallucinatory look at the life of “Josef K.,” chief attorney in an enormous multinational firm that exploits both his idealism and his self-doubt in order to present to the world a public face that will mask its own dark and fascistic intentions. Fusing Marxist and capitalist perspectives in a manner that anticipates aspects of the current global market expansion, Weiss evokes a world in which nothing is private and everything is for sale.
This edition of The New Trial is designed to facilitate theatrical teaching and stage production of the play. An extensive introduction by James Rolleston and Kai Evers situates the work in the full context of Weiss’s life, including his Swedish exile during the regime of the Third Reich. In addition, the play’s text is followed by interviews with Weiss and his original codirector (and wife) Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, as well as an account of the challenges of the first English staging by director Jody McAuliffe."

"Published in 1986, the year of his death, this is the last play from Weiss, best known for the 1960s plays Marat/Sade and The Investigation. It is also the playwright's second attempt to adapt Franz Kafka's The Trial to the stage. His first attempt, in 1975, failed because it adhered too closely to the novel. This version integrates a lifelong dialog with Kafka's work into a new play that uses only the names, some settings, and an occasional mood from Kafka. It develops Weiss's themes of capitalist oppression, violence, and self-destruction in a contemporary claustrophobic world that Kafka would recognize. While not a masterpiece, this is a major modern work of political and social drama that experiments in surrealism and expressionism. This text also contains a substantial preface, a chronology, some notes on the use of Kafka in the play, Weiss's notes on the play and its characters, and an interview with the playwright. The New Trial was performed as part of a conference on Weiss at Duke University, and the text ends with an essay by its director. Recommended for academic and theater collections." - Thomas E. Luddy

""The New Trial "depicts the loss of art's value with sardonic humor. . . . The volume includes an informative introduction by James Rolleston and Kai Evers, who have come up with a smooth translation of the play. An interview with Weiss and his wife, Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, is helpful, as is an intriguing essay by the director of the script's American premiere at Duke University in 1998. . . . Thankfully, "The New Trial" proffers a clear and compelling statement of Weiss's last thoughts on the powerless power of art in an age of global conglomerates." -Bill Marx

"Franz Kafka was a major influence on Peter Weiss: Kafka's work - and his life - shimmer shadowily in much of Weiss' own work. In 1974, at the suggestion of Ingmar Bergman, Weiss even adapted Kafka's novel, The Trial, for the stage -- a version Bergman rejected (it premiered in Bremen, in 1975). While Weiss then focussed his attention on his great work of fiction, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see our review), Kafka -- and specifically The Trial -- still had a hold on him. Completing Die Ästhetik des Widerstands in 1981, he turned back to writing for the stage. The New Trial was to be his last work, first staged in Stockholm a mere two months before his death.
The New Trial is not an adaptation of Kafka's novel. Weiss did use The Trial as a template, but he maintained:
The only elements I have taken over from the novel are the reference to it in the title, the names of the characters, and -- as a core pattern -- certain of the dramatic locations.
(Note that the references to the novel in the play are usefully described here in an appendix, "The Kafka Connection".)
Weiss does, however, also acknowledge the play's "inner affinity" to Kafka. In fact, Josef K. -- the main character -- is very much Kafka's K., and the inner affinity is a conspicuous one. The New Trial is, however "a play happening in our own time, in which Josef K and the figures surrounding him are our contemporaries." K's hapless and almost helpless confusion is much the same in both play and novel, but in Weiss' new version the external factors have taken on new and very different dimensions.
The New Trial is a character study. K's is a powerful role: he is an individual at odds with the world around him, and unable to grasp it all (K is, to some extent, also clearly an alter ego of Weiss). But The New Trial is also very much a political play.
Weiss states: "The new theme emerged through a conversation with a specialist in economics" -- words that might (unfortunately) be enough to scare off many audiences. The play is an indictment of capitalism, of the all-powerful financial-industrial complex, but Weiss is careful in his presentation, admitting the complexities of the issues. Weiss doses the didacticism in the play, though he makes his position quite clear.
K is Chief Attorney in a large (and seemingly ever-growing) company, working in the insurance department until he is promoted to headquarters. A serious, responsible worker, trying to help the people that come to him, he is often thwarted by his company, whose goals remain largely nebulous to K. "A new world is coming", Rabensteiner tells him, but it is not one K is prepared for.
For all of Weiss' claims that The New Trial is set in our own time, much of it has a dated feel. The ominous company he works for is almost cartoonishly out of date, a Kafkaesque vision out of the 1920s that modern audiences will find it difficult to relate to (especially in America, where corporate culture is often more revered than actual culture). Similarly, the political activism -- including the many parties presenting their platforms, arguing for change, and trying to enlist support -- must seem almost baffling to contemporary audiences (again: especially in America).
"I want order -- but a different kind of order", K says. "I want a larger order, an order in which everything makes sense." There does appear to be a larger order here, but it is a baffling one to K. Still, he does his best to do what he thinks is right. The family he tries to assist in his insurance role is rebuffed by the anonymous conglomerate he works for. K's solution -- where all his others fail -- is to let them move in with him in.
"Your idealism -- we could use more of that !" the Public Prosecutor tells K. In fact, they only wish to abuse his idealism. His transfer to corporate headquarters allows the company to present a false front. K is "morally unimpeachable", and the company uses this to their benefit -- for as long as they need him. He is not the only one taken advantage of in this manner. His neighbour, Miss Bürstner, is similarly taken advantage of. "She is the exploited woman", Weiss writes in his character-notes. "She is given authority, but only apparently so."
K is allowed to select the art that will then hang in corporate headquarters. He meets the artist Titorelli, who seems to produce an art that speaks to K's concerns, that can stand up to the corporation -- but art, too, becomes complicit. Art is not enough to counter the corporation: it is subsumed and turns against itself, twisted by the company. It shows the threatening forces but these are: "Forces which, as we show with our purchasing, we understand how to exorcise and control !"
K thinks that because he is an insignificant person he can not do harm. Leni knows the awful truth: "Such an insignificant person can give a face to power." That is what K does, fatally.
"Everything is the regime of lies", Weiss states. Only in the end does K almost comprehend. Still, he "remains standing, irresolute", moments too long. He can not bring himself to act, even to save himself.
It is difficult to subtract the Kafkesque elements from the play, though it seems stronger if not read just in that light. As an echo of Kafka, an alternate reading of The Trial, it has some power, but its true strength is surely if seen standing on its own. (We'd like to imagine a colourful, perhaps even exaggeratedly modern staging, nothing as stark and black and white as Kafka seems always to be presented as -- and as the play is in the admittedly misleading black-and-white photographs of the American premiere included in this edition.)
The play is fairly solidly translated (and certainly preferable to the original German Suhrkamp edition, which cut the last pages of the play, leaving a different, open end). An introduction by the translators, various appendices and notes (including comments by Weiss, as well as a conversation with him), and Jody McAuliffe's reflections on directing the English-language premiere all help explain the text, suggesting a number of approaches to it. The Dante connection (note the 33 scenes of the play) is fully explored, as is the Kafka influence. Aside from terrifying admissions by McAuliffe ("my students, by and large, had never even heard of Brecht, let alone Weiss") the pieces are interesting and very helpful. An odd omission is a list of the cast of characters, which we would have found useful.
An unusual play -- not the sort of thing one finds being written or produced nowadays -- it is nevertheless a worthwhile one. This text, along with the useful supporting material, allows readers to imagine the play for themselves (if they're not too misled by the production-photographs) and thus seems an ideal approach to the challenging work.
A must for those interested in either Weiss or Kafka, and certainly recommended to those interested in how political drama can be conceived." - The Complete Review


Peter Weiss, Holderlin: A Play in Two Acts, Seagull Books, 2010.

"The work of German poet Frederich Hölderlin (1770–1843) has inspired countless poets and philosophers from Paul Celan to Rainer Maria Rilke to Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet, despite the international renown and respect his hymns and elegies have since earned for their lyric style and innovative approach to Greek myth, his work was not widely celebrated during his lifetime. Diagnosed with a severe case of hypochondria at a young age, he was beset by mental illness for much of his life, living the final decades in the care of a carpenter.
In Hölderlin, distinguished German playwright Peter Weiss brings to the page the life and times of one of Germany’s greatest poets. Like Trotsky in Exile, Hölderlin presents a biography in the form of a two-act drama. Following its opening in 1971 in Stuttgart, the play was staged numerous times in Germany and Switzerland, and as Robert Cohen explains in his introduction, it was “greeted by accolades as well as by intense criticism since Weiss had dared to revise the image of one of the great heroic figures of German Culture.” Weiss explains that he was motivated “to describe something of the conflict that arises in a person who suffers to the point of madness from the injustices, the humiliations in his society, who completely supports the revolutionary upheavals, and yet does not find the praxis with which the misery can be remedied.”
The resulting dramatic biography is as captivating and divisive today as it was forty years ago, and it has yet to be matched by any other biographic treatment of Hölderlin. Presented here for the first time in English, Weiss’s play is a lyrical investigation of the intense and influential poems of Hölderlin and the turbulent life behind them."
"Peter Weiss' play, Hölderlin, is closely based on the German poet's life, cleverly also tying in questions of art and politics (and philosophy). It begins, as Robert Cohen notes in his Introduction, where Marat/Sade left off, on 14 July 1793, the day after Marat's murder, and Hölderlin can certainly be seen as a continuation of Weiss' exploration of the revolutionary themes and subjects (and, yes, eventually the action moves to an asylum again).
Friedrich Hölderlin was a great poet, though under-appreciated in his own time -- his verse, and thought, far ahead of it. He was friends with, among others, G.W.F.Hegel and Friedrich Schelling when they were all students, but he never managed to establish himself as they all did. As Hölderlin announces right at the start of the play:
For years he heard his words called mad by men
because their truth was beyond their ken.
Most of the play is set in the 1790s, with Hölderlin trying to find some hold in the post-(French-)Revolutionary world whose ripple-effects are still being felt in Germany, leading to continuing debate about government, politics, and philosophy (as well as the occasional anti-authoritarian demonstrations typical of students in every age). The revolutionary is stuck in a world not ready for the vision of his thought or words: Weiss' Afterword offers a gloss on all the characters, and of Hölderlin he writes: "he represents a type of individual who has been cast out and driven into a corner by his epoch".
Hölderlin tries to earn his keep as a live-in tutor ("unable as a poet to keep alive/he's forced to play the tutor to survive"), but has limited success: his experiences in the repressive households -- most obviously manifesting themselves in his young ward Fritz von Kalb's relentless masturbatory excesses (no matter what they try, Hölderlin reports: "still I find him in convulsions/at his vice") -- slowly crushing his rather delicate soul and his ambitions. As Hegel diagnoses:
no other
is so vulnerable
to crushing pressures
A single word

uttered at random

or in passing

wounds him to the heart
The world
will utterly

destroy him
The self-abusive Fritz certainly doesn't get much out of the lessons or the example Hölderlin might set, complaining:
Your blather makes me fart
I shit on all your art

Give me a woman's slit

I would rather stare at it

than hear you rant and watch you drool

Beat me now you stupid fool

(Fritz actually goes in for all forms of self-abuse: when Hölderlin won't slap him around at the end of this little speech he simply does it himself.)
Hölderlin withstands the forces and words and temptations (sex doesn't come easy either, even when the married women lust after him) for a while, but continued failure weighs ever more heavily on him. With neither his odes nor his Hyperion the great hoped for break-through that might allow him to live as a writer he continues to be frustrated at every turn, "oppressed by cares and by critics ill-used"; his Empedocles remains unfinished. He descended into madness but lived decades longer, most of them in what amounts to an ivory tower (an actual tower) :
The Revolution as an ideal was so real to me
that I was shattered by what happened in reality
Weiss uses other significant thinkers of the age as a contrast to Hölderlin's position, from Hegel and Schelling to Schiller and Goethe (whom Hölderlin fails to recognize in one scene that perfectly captures Hölderlin's blinding dedication and obsession to his own ideas and words); inevitably, Weiss sends (in one of the few scenes that are not historically based) Karl Marx to visit the tower-dweller, the one man who would eventually be able to advance the Revolution (but, tellingly, only after having abandoned poetry) .
The ultra-idealist - the true poet - Hölderlin was undone by the sheer grandiosity of his aspirations and beliefs:
All forms and ways of thinking

must be shaken up and

overthrown totally

We are taking part

in the last and greatest

work of man
But while he could conceive of: " the dawn/of a new age", it proved illusory and unattainable. The (real) world did, as Hegel predicted, utterly destroy him. Hegel, Schelling, even rabble-rouser Sinclair (another longtime friend) all adapted and worked within the system, in one way or another; Hölderlin, always pure, never could - and lost his mind.
Weiss' play is a creative take on idealism -- poetic and political -- that's firmly grounded in history. Overtly but not overly political, Weiss' play can seem, like his Hölderlin, naïve, but in its personal focus avoids becoming programmatic. The free verse does not translate entirely smoothly, but Weiss relatively simple language at least avoids the pitfalls that any Hölderlin-imitation would have brought with it. (Hölderlin's poetry (and even his prose is poetic) is notoriously 'difficult'; like Rilke's -- the only comparably sublime German poet -- it presents enormous translation challenges (though, as Hölderlin demonstrates, even what seems like relatively simple verse can pose considerable challenges).)
An impressive and also entertaining drama." - M.A.Orthofer

"Best-known for his plays, "Marat/Sade" and "The Investigation", the playwright and novelist Peter Weiss (1916 -- 1982), wrote a two-act play in 1971-1972 based upon the life of the German romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin (1770 -- 1843). The play was produced in both East and West Germany and in Switzerland and sparked a great deal of controversy regarding the accuracy of Weiss' understanding of Holderlin. Holderlin was a poet and playright who went insane in the last half of his life. He spent 35 years living in the home of a carpenter and admirer of his poetry in a small tower with a view of the Nekar River. Holderlin's life is the stuff of tragedy and romance.
When I learned of the play, I wanted to read it due to my interest in German idealistic philosophy and in Martin Heidegger, one of many readers who have been deeply influenced by the poet. The play has been translated from the German by Jon Swan in collaboration with Carl Weber and published in 2010. As far as I am aware, this is the first English translation of Weiss' play. The volume includes as well a good introductory essay to the play by Robert Cohen, adjunct Professor of German at New York University and the author of several studies of Weiss, and Weiss' own Afterword to the play in which he offers comments on each of the characters and how they are to be performed.
I am not sure how "Holderlin" would fare on the stage, but the play is thoughtful, disturbing and provocative to read. The translation is into intense English poetry, sometimes rhymed, which itself captures something of Holderlin's restless spirit. The incidents on the play are factually based on Holderlin's life. In addition to the poet, the primary characters include the philosophers Hegel and Schelling, who were close to the poet and to each other during their student years at the seminary. The characters also include the poets Goethe and Schiller who also knew Holderlin and the philosopher Fichte, with whom Holderlin studied for a time. Other characters important to Holderlin presented in the play include Susette Gotard, whose family had hired Holderlin as a tutor and with whom he carried on what appears to be an affair, Professor Ferdinand Autenriech, a psychiatrist and the inventor of a restraining device for mental patients, who deemed Holderlin insane, and Friedrich Sinclair, another school friend who was tried for treason and who found Holderlin a position as a court librarian during the years of his insanity. Karl Marx makes an appearance late in the play, but this is an invention of the author. The historical characters, particularly Hegel and Goethe, are well portrayed in a short space and make an effective foil to the portrayal of Holderlin.
The play is full of scenes of violence and repressed sexuality. Many moments have a dream-like or hallucinatory quality especially during the years that Holderlin is confined to the tower. The climax of Weiss' drama is a play-within-a-play as Holderlin and a mysterious chorus offer his old school friends, including Hegel, Schelling, Sinclair, and others, a rendition and explanation of Holderlin's difficult drama, "Empedocles".
The play is presented against the background of the French Revolution, which is the source of the controversy that it has engendered. Many interpretations of Holderlin view him as a prototypical German nationalist, or as a solitary, or as a theological poet who attempts to bring new gods to life in a world in which the old gods have lost their meaning. Heidegger's hermeneutics, idiosyncratic as they may be, set out this approach. Weiss, following his own interpretation and some then-recent scholarly writing on the poet, sees Holderlin differently. Weiss sees Holderlin throughout his life as deeply enamored with the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. More, Weiss offers an almost Marxist reading of Holderlin. His character wants to rouse the common people from their centuries of stupor and exploitation so that they can free themselves and live nobly. Simple workers make frequent appearances in Weiss' play together with a proletarian character called "the Singer" who comments upon and presents the action. Holderlin's long imprisonment in the tower is political in character, Weiss suggests. And Holderlin's poetry was designed towards the liberation of all, rather than for the musings of elites.
As Robert Cohen points out in his introduction, it is difficult in this play to determine where the thought of Holderlin ends and the thought of Weiss begins. Weiss' play would not be a source to rely on with confidence for an understanding of Holderlin's poetics or thinking. But for all the provocations of interpretation, Weiss' play works as a drama. It is thoughtful and erie. It shows a good deal about the man and the era in which he lived. I struggled with the play and with its ideas. It made me want to explore Holderlin for myself." - Robin Friedman


Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, Trans. by Geoffrey Skelton, The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1964.

"No play by a German since Brecht has enjoyed the success of Marat/Sade, and its author Peter Weiss has emerged as one of the most remarkable of the post-war generation of German writers. This English version by Geoffrey Skelton and Adrian Mitchell was the text used in Peter Book's brilliant production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was undoubtedly the theatrical event of 1964 in London. It has also been produced all over the world by the most outstanding directors - Konrad Swinarski in Berlin, Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm, Roger Planchon in Paris, and many more.
The RSC's work in establishing Antonin Artuad's conception of 'Theatre of Cruelty' found its climactic expression in this powerful and savage play, in which the discipline of verse heightens the emotional impact. The combination of sheer entertainment, Sadean philosophy and the range of theatrical shock techniques leaves the audience limp but excited at the end of the evening. The published text allows the reader to see how skilfully the author has dramatised the paradox of Sade, a black saint whose hjumanity must be set against the horrors of his imagination."

"Cast: 9M, 3W, Extras. "Total theatre" is the expression critics have used to describe this unique theatrical event which is designed for production on a nearly bare stage by a large and flexible cast. The Marquis de Sade, when an inmate at the Asylum of Charenton, staged plays that were performed by fellow inmates. With this point of departure, Peter Weiss has created one of the most powerful and exciting plays on the century!" - from back cover

"Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade is founded on what may well be the most brilliant theatrical conceit since Pirandello's Six Characters. (...) As such, it is disappointing. (...) In Marat/Sade, the trouvaille is more exciting than the execution. The play does not sustain its own invention." - George Steiner

"Marat/Sade -- or The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of Monsieur de Sade, as it is actually titled -- is, of course, one of the more famous plays of recent times. This brilliant play, in which the Marquis de Sade stages scenes from the French Revolution in an insane asylum, is a theatrical marvel.
The play is set in the asylum of Charenton, where the Marquis de Sade is held incarcerated (as, in fact, he was from 1801 to his death in 1814). A play is being presented within the play: the Marquis -- here plain Monsieur de Sade -- has gotten a group of inmates together to "show how Jean-Paul Marat died", a drama showing the last hours of the revolutionary. It is July 13, 1808 (the eve of Bastille Day), and fifteen years have passed since Marat was killed in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday. In their play de Sade and his inmate-players portray the revolutionary times and recreate the infamous murder.
The director of the asylum, Coulmier, brings his family to watch this little entertainment -- one that, unsurprisingly, turns out to be more political than the good director would have hoped, and where matters eventually get quite out of hand as the revolutionary fervor infects the patients. De Sade makes quite a spectacle out of the revolutionary events -- to Coulmier's chagrin -- but offers also philosophical and political musings, engaging the play-Marat in debate and argument. Coulmier continues to insist that times have changed, that things are done differently now; de Sade shows that it is not necessarily so.
A profound meditation on the nature of revolution, on power and its abuses, means and ends, Marat/Sade is also great theater. Weiss has written a marvelous drama here, both entertaining and thoughtful. It is, undoubtedly, one of the great works of the 1960s.
The German Library edition of Geoffrey Skelton's translation includes some revisions previously unavailable in any English-language edition, making it the "definitive translation". It is in fact, the first complete translation of Weiss' definitive German version.
The use of rhyme and song make the play difficult to translate, and one grants the translator some leeway in adapting content to accommodate form. Even so, Geoffrey Skelton's translation is disappointing. The beauty of Weiss' use of language is almost entirely lost, and though that is disappointing it is something one grudgingly accepts when relying on a translation. It is alteration of the substance of the words, declarations, and thoughts that is unacceptable -- and something that is found entirely too often here.
The liberties Skelton takes are stunning, as any random sampling show. Violent exhortations to kill are tamed down:
Hängt sie auf die Generäle
Die Spekulanten an die Pfähle
becomes:
Down with all of the ruling class
Throw all the generals out on their arse
Words and expressions are continuously changed (and usually weakened in tone, meaning and resonance). Focus and emphasis are shifted far too often, misrepresenting Weiss' original text. Skelton's reading transforms the text, and not for the better.
Skelton's translation reads decently enough (though the flow of language is nowhere near as smooth as in Weiss' original), and it is adequate - but barely. Presumably it will continue to stand as the standard English version. Those who don't read German should be aware that they are thus missing quite a great deal." - The Complete Review


Peter Weiss, Avantgarde Film


"Peter Weiss' survey, Avantgarde Film, was originally written in Swedish. The German edition expands slightly on the Swedish version, in a well-presented volume edited (and translated) by Beat Mazenauer.
Peter Weiss was not only a world-renowned playwright and great (though, outside of the German-speaking world, grossly underappreciated) novelist. He was also a painter of considerable talent. And he was also a filmmaker. Weiss' films were generally short and experimental (and in Swedish), and never achieved wide circulation. Nevertheless, his fascination with cinema is obviously reflected in his writing, especially his focussed descriptive prose.
Avantgarde Film surveys the history of avant-garde film from the beginnings (Méliès) until the 1950s. Short chapters provide overviews of the work of directors such as Buñuel, Vigo, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, or specific films such as Eisenstein's Que viva Mexico or Peixoto's Limite. The evolution of avant-garde filmmaking is followed, from its early peaks to its marginalization with the addition of sound (making filmmaking too expensive for many experimental efforts), to American, French, and Swedish experiments after World War II. (And yes, Weiss also discusses his own work.)
There is much descriptive material here, as Weiss goes over the many artists and films that fit his definition of avant-garde film (extending as far as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane). His analyses are succinct, but still of value. The volume is also richly illustrated with black and white stills from many of the films under discussion - particularly helpful, given the subject matter.
Weiss believed:
Der Avantegardefilm spielt in der großen, allgemeinen Filmproduktion dieselbe Rolle wie die modernistische Lyrik in der Literatur. (Avant-garde film plays the same role in the larger, general production of film as modernist poetry does in literature.)
It is a small sliver, but one that was of interest to Weiss. He himself came to film in part because the static medium of painting was inadequate for his purposes. In specifically avant-garde cinematic efforts he saw great potential -- though he, like many others, was rarely able to fully realize it.
The chapters dealing with what were then recent efforts in the US, France, and Sweden all remark hopefully on the many possibilities that remained to be explored.
Weiss has a good understanding of the medium, and shows great familiarity with his subject matter. He conveys this quite well, though the book is only a survey rather than an in-depth study. As an introduction to avant-garde film it is certainly useful. It also offers insight into Weiss' own influences, interests, and aesthetic views." - The Complete Review

Peter Weiss, Inferno

"Dante's Divine Comedy was always one of Peter Weiss' guiding texts. He used it, in a variety of ways, in several of his works, and among his great but unrealised projects was a contemporary version of the Divina Commedia. Inferno -- written in 1964, but put aside and only published more than twenty years after his death, in 2003 -- was the first part of this planned dramatic trilogy. Another part, Paradiso, became the play now known as The Investigation, but the trilogy never took shape as a whole.
Dante is the central character in the 33-canto Inferno, with the poet Virgil accompanying him. This Inferno is, however, a very different one from the one of Dante's own work.
In his afterword Christoph Weiß quotes from Weiss' notebooks, the playwright having written that in his Inferno-piece he wanted to create: ""eine ganze neue Theaterform / ein mimisches Theater und ein Geräuschtheater" ("an entirely new form of theatre / a mimic- and sound-theatre").
The piece requires ten actors. One plays Dante, but all the others fill more than one role. Virgil is also Giotto, an actor playing the "Chef" (the Boss) plays eight other roles, mostly authority-figures of some sort (including Charon, Pluto, Ulysses, and Minotaurus). There's also a divided chorus (for strophe and antistrophe), appearing in a variety of disguises, the members of which also fill other roles
The character- and costume-changes, the shifting, surreal setting, and Weiss' short scenes and simple but stylised dialogue allow for expressive theatre: movement and sound -- suggested in Weiss' stage directions -- clearly have a great deal to do with the (potential) success of the play. It is a performance piece, allowing for a variety of approaches. The text is evocative enough to allow one to imagine some of the possibilities, but this is clearly a play that succeeds or fails depending on the director's vision.
The story is of Dante's journey through this hell. The scene opens with him there, on a podium, with a laurel wreath on his head and a staff -- but he's anything but regal or prepossessing: he stands there: "klein und schmächtig kreidebleich" ("small and delicate chalk-white").
Dante is unable to speak -- the first scene closes with him opening his mouth but unable to utter a word -- and seems in state of deep shock. He doesn't remember -- or doesn't want to -- and the scenes he is confronted with seem unreal to him: when he finally begins to speak (in the fifth scene) he is amazed by city streets that look like the streets in the city where he was raised -- except that they are peaceful, without the threats that originally drove him from there. Like much of the play, this return (of sorts) is, as Christoph Weiß notes in his afterword, also autobiographical: Dante's wanderings through this Inferno are much like Weiss' post-World War II return to Germany, and this hell is a reflection of 1960s Germany. This isn't a fire-and-brimstone hell -- which seems to be one of the difficulties Dante has with it, because the malign is still very much in evidence, but the horrors of a different sort than the ones found in Dante's own Inferno.
In real life Dante was an exile from Florence (and sentenced to death in abstentia). Weiss, too, was an exile, and here he heaps on Dante the guilt of the survivor-exile who escaped the worst of what happened at home. Those Weiss' Dante finds in this Inferno accuse him of being unfit to in any way judge them or what happened in his absence. They mock him for his fear and for fleeing, and condemn him even for his failure to do anything about his much-beloved Beatrice:
Bei Dante hat der Held lieber zu flüchten
und der verlockenden Umarmung zu entsagen
als nachzugeben seinen Süchten
und die dazugehörigen Gefahren zu ertragen.
(In Dante the hero would rather flee
and renounce the tempting embrace
instead of yielding to his desires
and enduring the attendant dangers.)
Dante is condemned for his very art: "nur im Gedicht hatte er zur Liebe Mut" ("only in his poetry did he have the courage to love").
Scenes depict and allude to various contemporary horrors, including the mass-murder of the Jews and, at the very end of the play, the atomic bomb. Regarding past events Dante continues to use the same excuse: "Nein / ich war nicht dabei" ("No / I wasn't there"), but in Weiss' play that is not enough to absolve him.
Dante undergoes several transformations in the play: the mute poet-on-a-pedestal of the opening scene is stripped of his clothes, left naked to the world, for example. There are a succession of stages, including the opportunity for him to compromise himself and serve, in comfort, in this world (he declines); eventually he is literally caught in a net. Throughout he is largely passive: things are done to him, while he remains uncertain of how to deal with this overwhelming might (and his own overwhelming guilt).
Peter Weiss' Inferno is fascinating as an autobiographical text, and is an interesting creative consideration of 1960s Germany. Weiss' vision of this hell on earth gains and loses, probably in roughly equal measure, from his very personal take. His survivor-guilt, compounded further by the memory of his own lost Bea (his sister), is something he has explored in other works (most notably in the autobiographical novels Vanishing Point and Leavetaking), but his approach here is particularly daring. It is also, ultimately, only half-successful.
Inferno is an interesting theatrical experiment, and it will be interesting to see how it will translate to the stage (the first production is scheduled for 2004/5). Weiss was an innovative dramatist, and Inferno is an ambitious piece of theatre. It is also a product of the 1960s, born in the very shadow of his first success, Marat/Sade; indeed, part of the feeling of being completely overwhelmed no doubt stems from what Weiss was going through in 1964 when he was writing this play (Marat/Sade premiered in late April of that year). Quite possibly, too, it would benefit from being seen as part of a greater whole (the planned trilogy), rather than by itself.
Christoph Weiß's afterword provides a good introduction to and overview of the play. A volume of supporting material, edited by Yannick Müllendeer, is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2004 and should provide an overview of the ca. 1000 pages of Inferno-related material Weiss left behind." - The Complete Review


Peter Weiss, Leavetaking

"Peter Weiss' father died in March, 1959, shortly after his mother (she died in December, 1958). Leavetaking -- In German the title is literally Leavetaking from the Parents -- marks Weiss' coming to terms with his family and his past and the emergence of Weiss the artist. With this novel, and the companion piece Vanishing Point (see our review), Weiss emerged on the German literary scene.
Leavetaking begins with the narrator's father's death, but the focus of the novel is on the narrator's childhood and youth, covering the years 1916 to 1940. It is presented as a solid block of writing, a single paragraph. It is a gush of pent-up words and feelings finally released, but Weiss narrates his story clearly and the reader is easily swept into the flow.
Weiss describes his childhood and awkward and difficult youth. There is the tragedy of his beloved sister Margit, who died when Weiss was still young. There is the difficult relationship with his parents. There are the fantasies of adolescence and youth, of sex and love -- dark, ugly fantasies here, with no small amount of self-loathing. And it is all set in a world that is all the while precariously balanced on the precipice.
A focus is Weiss' effort to become an artist, including his time at the Prague Academy. Weiss was not oblivious to political circumstances, but it is remarkable how politics and history recede into the background, his main struggle being to find his own way, even as the world crumbles around him and as truly life-threatening danger apporaches from all sides. This picture of Europe on the eve of the Second World War is an unlikely but fascinating one.
Weiss' pilgrimage to Hermann Hesse in Switzerland is described, and his relationship with the master (called Harry Haller here, after the character from Steppenwolf) well-presented. (Hesse's interest in the young artist was of great significance to Weiss. Hesse allowed Weiss to illustrate two of his books (recently re-published by Suhrkamp Verlag) and in homage to the master Weiss published the German edition of Der Fremde under the pseudonym "Sinclair", a nod to one of Hesse's characters.)
Indifferent to politics, Weiss wishes to pursue his art. He joins his family briefly in their London exile but finds no place there. He does paint and advance his art, but he does so mainly in a hopeless environment in which art can not thrive. Significantly, his mother destroys his paintings before the family flees to Sweden.
The book closes in 1940, with the narrator stating: "I was on my way to look for a life of my own." Weiss endures - and he would go on to become an artist - but it is only with his parents' deaths that he truly finds that life of his own and can finally write completely freely.
An impressive stark and dark effort, Weiss' slow coming to terms with his past - and his future - is impressively captured, the honesty often brutal. Recommended." - The Complete Review

Peter Weiss, Vanishing Point

"The first of Weiss' explicitly autobiographical novels, Leavetaking, describes his childhood and youth until 1940. At that point he essentially claimed his independence and set out to become an artist. In fact, true success only came some twenty years later, with the writing of these two fictionalized memoirs shortly after the final leavetaking from his parents with their deaths in the late 1950s.
Vanishing Point is considerably longer than Leavetaking, and it is also presented differently - instead of being written in one uninterrupted paragraph, Vanishing Point is a text of almost fragmentary nature, with blocks of shorter passages relating episodes set apart from one another. It covers a much shorter span than the first volume, describing Weiss' life in Sweden (basically in Stockholm) from 1940 to 1947. It begins November 8, 1940 (the author's birthday), with the narrator set to become an artist.
Given the times it is an almost hopeless ambition. But Weiss is able to show his education - in both harsh everyday reality as well as the art he comes in contact with - which makes for his transformation into a true artist. From becoming politicized due to the collapse of continental Europe (and the constant threat even in Sweden) to the interaction with other artists as well as with literature Weiss becomes a more rounded and more adult figure. The realities of life - even in this surreal world - are used by Weiss, and become the foundation of his work.
Questions of identity - specifically his nominally Jewish identity - are explored, and his feelings about his Jewish background are, in particular, heightened when he sees a film of Auschwitz after the war. His identification with those that suffered and perished under the Nazis would also figure prominently in numerous later works, from the short essay Meine Ortschaft to his magnum opus, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see our review).
Literary influences are listed as the narrator escapes into this world. The roll-call is a familiar and predictable one for the time, ranging from Hesse to Stendhal, and even Galsworthy, as well as Wassermann, Musil, and Mann. And, he writes: "Only for two books in brown bindings, The Castle and The Trial, could I find no room." Eventually, of course, he is finally ready to read these as well, another step in the process of his artistic maturation.
Vanishing Point is strongly autobiographical, with many of Weiss' friends recognizable figures in it. It also describes his real-life romances, as well as the birth of his first child. And still, throughout, the emphasis is on coming to terms with himself, and of finding his place in the world. By the end of the books he comes to the famous conclusion:
I could buy myself paper, a pen, a pencil and a brush and could create pictures whenever and wherever I wanted. (...) That evening, in the spring of 1947, on the embankment of the Seine in Paris, at the age of thirty, I saw that it was possible to live and work in the world, and that I could participate in the exchange of ideas that was taking place all around, bound to no country.
Released from geography and nationality he would continue with his art, finally turning completely to writing. The process of becoming an artist was a long and drawn-out one for Weiss, but he presents a fascinating picture of it in this volume (and the preceding one).
A rich and fascinating work. Recommended." - The Complete Review

Peter Weiss, Die Situation

"Peter Weiss is considered a German writer, and most of his best-known works were written in his mother tongue. However, Weiss lived in Sweden for most of his life, becoming a Swedish citizen in 1946. He vacillated between the two languages for some time, writing several works of fiction in Swedish between 1944 and 1956 while never completely abandoning German (writing The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman (see our review) in German in 1952, for example).
The Swedish fiction (and the early German efforts) are Weiss' most experimental work. A number of these Swedish works appeared in German translation in the early 1980s, among them De Besegrade (1948, German: Die Besiegten) and Duellen (1951, German: Das Duell). Situationen was the last (and longest) of Weiss' Swedish works of fiction, written in 1956. Despite some critical acclaim for his previous efforts he had been unable to find a publisher for it when he completed it. Unlike his other work, he also did not try to get it published in German after he had achieved world-wide renown. Fortunately, Suhrkamp Verlag has now finally published the work.
As Wiebke Ankersen says in her afterword, this is probably the most Swedish of Weiss' texts. Whereas his previous efforts also focus on the struggle of the artist and the search for identity here the extraneous world intrudes to a far greater extent -- with the Hungarian uprising, for example, or the Suez crisis. There is already some distance from the devastation and horror of World War II (which naturally dominates De Besegrade -- a portrait of "the vanquished"), and Sweden offers an apparently safe harbour. There is an advanced welfare system and relative comfort, but the Cold War reality and global unease cast a shadow even here.
Die Situation consists of three parts: "Night", "Day", and "Night" -- covering a typical day in the lives of his characters. It centers around a group of characters who are not fully integrated into society -- exiles, outsiders, and artists. They write, direct, paint. They interact -- with each other, with lovers, with children -- but there is always a distance between them.
The novel has many strong autobiographical elements. Weiss was still trying to establish himself in 1956, when this novel was written. He was forty that year, and he has his characters voice many of his concerns (and offer reassurances). One mulls:
Ich bin vierzig Jahre. Ich habe noch nicht begonnen. (...) Ich bin vierzig Jahre und sitze in einem Café am Rande der Welt.
(I am forty years old. I haven't begun yet. (...) I am forty years old and I'm sitting in a café at the edge of the world.)
Age itself is not at issue: Weiss recognizes that an artist's greatest works can come to fruition late in life -- but he understands that the seeds must be there, from the beginning. Often he feels the potential -- and at other times he feels instead: "Ich bin gefüllt mit Sand" ("I'm filled with sand"). (The potential was, of course, there in Weiss, a spectacular late bloomer.)
Die Situation shifts between third person and first person narrative. Where much of the third person narrative fixes on description, the first person voices are reflective:
How honest can I be vis-à-vis myself ? How far do I dare go in recognizing my self ?
The artists recognize that they stand apart, a situation they feel ambivalent about, half ashamed and half proud.
Was für ein sonderbares Dasein, welch eigenartige Beschäftigung, hier in Zurückgezogenheit zu sitzen, in einer Muschel, in ein Kokon, und Worte hervorzuspinnen und sie auf Papier zu fixieren, während draußen Menschen und Maschinen in einer gewaltsamen Aktivität brodeln.
(What an odd existence, what a peculiar occupation, to sit here in seclusion, in a shell, in a cocoon, and to spin out words and fix them on paper while outside people and machines boil with vigorous activity)
Weiss makes much of the struggle of the artist in the modern world. His characters are also uncertain of what there art should accomplish, and what form it should take. Paul the theatre director, Fanny the writer, Leo the painter, and Ossian (four faces for the many-faceted artist Weiss himself) each try different approaches -- while constantly questioning these (and themselves). The arguments are familiar, but Weiss weaves them neatly into the text. Even ideas that border on the cliché -- Leo announcing of his painting: "Ich werde noch mehr abstrahieren, ich werde abstrahieren, bis alles Außenwerk eliminiert ist, bis nur Farbflächen bleiben" ("I will abstract even more, I will continue to abstract until everything external is eliminated, until only areas of colour remain.") - are presented convincingly, incidental in complex scenes.
The characters also struggle with their personal needs for the comfort of human company and intimacy. There are attempts to break out of their isolation, but these are only of limited success.
Weiss' writing is rich and dense. There is a great deal of painstaking attention to detail (as in The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman), a focus on what is (and can be) perceived. There is occasionally a surfeit of description. Weiss frequently lists objects, as well as books and authors, focussing on depicting the reality of those that populate his novel. He also describes physical acts in unusual (and slightly discomforting) detail -- including lovemaking and defecation.
Stylistically Die Situation is a curious mix of Weiss' other efforts from this time. Both realistic and contemplative it is still emphatically experimental, with Weiss exploring what he can do with prose. One can see the lessons learnt here applied in his later works - the autobiographical fiction and then especially in the triumphant Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see our review).
Though more specifically localized (it is very much a novel of the Sweden of the 1950s), Die Situation is not too dated. Most of Weiss' fiction is quite timeless; indeed, if anything appears dated about this work it is the style, currently not en vogue. Still, Weiss is a fine writer and Die Situation an accomplished effort, worthwhile as a novel about the struggles and the role of the artist in the modern world. Die Situation is also an interesting biographical document, as many of the conflicts and concerns in it mirror those from Weiss' own life. Much of Weiss' writing from the 1940s to the early 1960s was heavily autobiographical, with most of the earlier works overshadowed by the culminating two volumes Abschied von den Eltern (1961, Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (1962, Vanishing Point). Nevertheless, Die Situation does offer further insight, a useful complement to the other novels.
An impressive work, deserving more than just to be considered a curiosity. Weiss' early prose is often underestimated, and Die Situation proves again that more attention should be paid to it." - The Complete Review

Peter Weiss, Briefe

"Peter Weiss first met Robert Jungk in Prague, in 1937, and then Jungk's close friend (and former classmate), Hermann Levin Goldschmidt, in Zurich, in the fall of 1938. They set out for a week together in the Swiss countryside that September (chronicled in Goldschmidt's diary, excerpted here), then went their separate ways -- Weiss remaining near Hermann Hesse, the others returning to Zurich. A close friendship developed -- despite a brief rupture between Jungk and Weiss early on over a girl. Goldschmidt even bought one of Weiss' early canvases (Weiss still focussed more on painting than writing at the time, though he pursued both), selling it back to him decades later.
Briefe documents much of the friendship, though the picture is not complete and rather one-sided: the vast majority of the 83 letters are the ones Weiss sent Goldschmidt (the latter being the only who managed to save most of the letters). Most of them date from early on, 1938-1941, with only a few stray letters from later. Nevertheless, they are of considerable interest, in particular as they are revealing about that period of early exile for Weiss. The bulk of the letters cover the same time-frame as many of the most significant parts of the autobiographical novels, Leavetaking (see our review) and Vanishing Point (see our review).
Political concerns are largely secondary, the war rarely and barely touched upon beyond how it affected the three as displaced persons. Weiss' focus is more on his very personal concerns, on his life, and his struggle to establish himself as an artist.
He recounts working in a factory in Sweden -- learning the art of appearing to be occupied, but in fact doing very little. He saved enough money there to devote himself solely to painting, retreating to the country to do so, and then preparing for his first exhibition, in Stockholm in 1941. His art consumes Weiss, and he will do most anything for it. One of the highpoints for him during this time is when the paintings he had to leave behind in Prague finally arrive in Sweden, and he can live with them again, covering the walls of his room with them. He spends a great deal of money on his exhibition, and he emphasizes that he is willing to publish his books essentially for free: he merely wants to be an artist, published, seen, recognized.
The often effusive letters offer interesting insights into Weiss' life, concerns, and art. The natural beauty of Sweden does little for him -- "Die schöne Natur kann mir merkwürdigerweise nichts bieten" -- while some of the urban vistas fascinate him: "Die trübe Vorstadt birgt die Landschaften, die mich bannen können" ("The drab city-outskirts holds those landscapes that can captivate me").
Weiss is forthright, emotional, half cocky and half unsure in these letters. He is certain of his art, and yet plagued by doubts. He looks for security and yet also revels in freedoms:
Doch TREIBEN, SICH-VERFLÜCHTIGEN, SICH AUFLÖSEN, VERGEHEN, DAHINFLUTEN: das, Hermann, sind Dinge auf die ich nicht verzichten kann, denn dies, scheint mir, sind die beherrschenden Elemente im Leben.
(But DRIFTING, LOSING ONESELF, DISSOLVING, PERISHING, FLOODING ALONG: those, Hermann, are things which I can't forgo, because these, it seems to me, are the dominating elements in life.)
Weiss also writes openly about his love affairs: "meine ewige Verliebtheiten, ohne die ich garnicht auskomme" ("my eternal infatuations, without which I can't get by"). He also misses the company of his friends - and often complains that they don't write enough to him.
Presciently Weiss asks that his letters be kept. In one from June, 1939 he writes:
Hebe diese Blätter bitte auf, Bob. Später möchte ich sie gerne wieder sehen. Sie sind die einzigen Dokument[e] aus dieser Zeit und einen Tagebuch ähnlich. Ich schreibe sonst nichts.
(Please save these pages, Bob. Later I would like to see them again. They are the only documents from this time and similar to a diary. I am not writing anything else.)
In another letter Weiss makes a similar request, addressed to Goldschmidt -- and then, in one from 1978, he thanks Goldschmidt for the copies of these letters which he had then just received.
There are far fewer letters from the later years -- a few from here and there. There are some interesting titbits (including the haggling over Weiss buying back the picture he had sold to Goldschmidt decades earlier), but not much of note.
The brief reminiscences by Jungk and Goldschmidt nicely round out the collection.
The collection is useful for anyone interested in Weiss' life, and especially in shedding additional light on the autobiographical novels. It is, however, unlikely to be of great interest for those not familiar with Weiss.
Particular note must be made of the exemplary presentation of this volume. The detailed notes (going so far as to physically describe each letter) are especially helpful. The presentation -- with a useful introduction, illustrations, notes, and reminiscences -- is thorough without being dryly scholarly. Too bad the volume (published as a nice little Reclam-Bibliothek paperback in 1992) is out of print and practically unobtainable." - The Complete Review
Leavetaking

Peter Weiss, Leavetaking, Trans. by Christopher Levenson, Melville House, 2014.


“I was on my way to look for a life of my own.”
A brilliant, brutally honest autobiographical novel, long out of print, from one of the great artistic polymaths of the 20th century.
This is a Sebaldian account of the narrator’s attempt to break free of a repressive upper-middle-class upbringing and make his way as an artist and individual, written in a single incantatory paragraph.
Leavetaking is the story of an upper-middle-class childhood and adolescence in Berlin between the wars. In the course of the book, Weiss plumbs the depths of family life: there is the early death of his beloved sister Margit, the difficult relationship with his parents, the fantasies of adolescence and youth, all set in the midst of an increasing anti-Semitism, which forces the Weiss family to move again and again, a peripatetic existence that only intensifies the narrator’s growing restlessness.
The young narrator is largely oblivious to world events and focused instead on becoming an artist, an ambition frustrated generally by his milieu and specifically by his mother, who, herself a former actress, destroys his paintings during one of the family’s moves. In the end, he turns to an older mentor, Harry Haller, a fictionalized portrait of Hermann Hesse, who encouraged and supported Weiss, and with Haller’s example before him, the narrator takes his first steps towards a truly independent life. Intensely lyrical, written with great imaginative power, Leavetaking is a vivid evocation of a world that has disappeared and of the narrator’s developing consciousness.

"In the light of this achievement this is a dynamic work, a re-creation and excorcism of the past rather than a recollection of it in tranquility. Brief though it is, its truthfulness and imaginative power are such as to involve the reader in what may have begun as an act of personal liberation." - Michael Hamburger


 Peter Weiss' father died in March, 1959, shortly after his mother (she died in December, 1958). Leavetaking -- In German the title is literally Leavetaking from the Parents -- marks Weiss' coming to terms with his family and his past and the emergence of Weiss the artist. With this novel, and the companion piece Vanishing Point (see our review), Weiss emerged on the German literary scene.
       Leavetaking begins with the narrator's father's death, but the focus of the novel is on the narrator's childhood and youth, covering the years 1916 to 1940. It is presented as a solid block of writing, a single paragraph. It is a gush of pent-up words and feelings finally released, but Weiss narrates his story clearly and the reader is easily swept into the flow.
       Weiss describes his childhood and awkward and difficult youth. There is the tragedy of his beloved sister Margit, who died when Weiss was still young. There is the difficult relationship with his parents. There are the fantasies of adolescence and youth, of sex and love -- dark, ugly fantasies here, with no small amount of self-loathing. And it is all set in a world that is all the while precariously balanced on the precipice.
       A focus is Weiss' effort to become an artist, including his time at the Prague Academy. Weiss was not oblivious to political circumstances, but it is remarkable how politics and history recede into the background, his main struggle being to find his own way, even as the world crumbles around him and as truly life-threatening danger apporaches from all sides. This picture of Europe on the eve of the Second World War is an unlikely but fascinating one.
       Weiss' pilgrimage to Hermann Hesse in Switzerland is described, and his relationship with the master (called Harry Haller here, after the character from Steppenwolf) well-presented. (Hesse's interest in the young artist was of great significance to Weiss. Hesse allowed Weiss to illustrate two of his books (recently re-published by Suhrkamp Verlag) and in homage to the master Weiss published the German edition of Der Fremde under the pseudonym "Sinclair", a nod to one of Hesse's characters.)
       Indifferent to politics, Weiss wishes to pursue his art. He joins his family briefly in their London exile but finds no place there. He does paint and advance his art, but he does so mainly in a hopeless environment in which art can not thrive. Significantly, his mother destroys his paintings before the family flees to Sweden.
       The book closes in 1940, with the narrator stating: "I was on my way to look for a life of my own." Weiss endures -- and he would go on to become an artist -- but it is only with his parents' deaths that he truly finds that life of his own and can finally write completely freely.
       An impressive stark and dark effort, Weiss' slow coming to terms with his past -- and his future -- is impressively captured, the honesty often brutal. Recommended. - The Complete Review


Born in 1916 in a province of what was then Prussia, Peter Weiss was one of the most virtuosic polymaths of his day. Throughout his youth, he engaged in various forms of artistic study—from photography and other visual arts to writing—before emigrating with his family to England and Sweden under the shadow of the Nazi regime. Over the course of his sixty-five years, Weiss was the award-winning author of some dozen plays, ten works of fiction, and numerous films and paintings. Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse was a mentor throughout his life.
Given this impressive education and output, it’s perhaps no surprise that Weiss chose to give his life an artistic treatment as well, turning his personal story of burgeoning aesthetic sensibilities, motivated by or at least coupled with a healthy dose of familial drama, into fiction. Although he wrote novels throughout his career, they have usually been remembered after his drama—especially one play, Marat/Sade (1963), which is his best known work today. A close second, though, is his unfinished three-volume novel about European resistance to Nazism, The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975, 1978, 1981); as much a work of theory and history as it is of imagination, W. G. Sebald it called a “magnum opus.”
With regard to his autobiographical novel Leavetaking (1960), reissued this year by Melville House in its original translation by Christopher Levenson and with a new introduction by Sven Bikierts, contemporary audiences may not only consider it a moving testimonial to a young man’s strivings for personal freedom, or a vivid rendering of Germany on the brink of massive historical change; more than that, it is an essential piece in the larger, sprawling puzzle of Weiss’s political and cultural ideologies. This poetically concise yet propulsive work, characterized by what Bikerts calls a “sense of undifferentiated onrush,” paints a portrait of a young artist in his state of becoming. And while it remains intensely personal, the novel opens a window into the influences behind Weiss’s life-long fascination with both internal and external resistance in his work.
Leavetaking begins, perhaps surprisingly for a Kunstlerroman, from a place of death. The unnamed narrator is now an adult, viewing his father’s corpse: “an enormous outlay of energy dissolved into nothingness . . . the corpse of a man in an alien land, no longer reachable.” Without going into specifics, he immediately sets a tone of underlying hostility and slight haughtiness that has helped bring him to this place in his life, and which will drive the rest of his narrative. Now that his father has passed, a year after his mother’s death, he’s free of the most oppressive forces he’s known and can fully embody and reflect upon the independence he fought to gain from them. Death, then, is the natural starting point for this particular Kunstlerroman, the first sentence of which is: “I have often tried to come to an understanding of the images of my father and my mother, to take bearings and steer a course between rebellion and submission. But I have never been able to grasp and interpret the essential being of these two figures standing at either side of the gateway of my life.” The narrator thus grieves “not for them [but] for what had been missed, for the yawning emptiness that surrounded my childhood and youth. Grief sprang from the recognition that the attempt at togetherness in which the members of the family had persisted to the end for two whole decades and had completely failed.” All that follows is a chronicle of those failed attempts: the tumultuous years of his childhood, at home with his parents and siblings, until the day of his “leavetaking” from that world into one of his own choosing. An aspiring though little-encouraged artist, he departs at the end of the book for Prague to study painting and literature. The highly articulate and penetrating prose itself indicates that the narrator has succeeded in this career. The rebellion he staged against his home life was therefore well worth its many anguishes.
Lacking typographical breaks or dialogue, Leavetaking reads as continuous, even imposing, 125-page block of subjectivity that the reader is asked to patiently parse through, never quite sure what is waiting at the end. It is as pure a work a stream of consciousness as one could imagine. Shifting seamlessly between past and present in tense and chronology, the otherwise mundane events of this life become more difficult to follow. With concentrated effort, the reader can forge through this rough plot from the outpouring of memory and emotion: As a boy, the narrator and his family are constantly moving to escape Nazi threats. This dislocation creates problems for him at school, coupled with the frustration he feels when his passion for art—the realm in which he feels safest and most in control—is beaten down as an unfit life choice by his parents; his father wants him to join the family business. Then, his sister is hit by a car and dies suddenly, marking one of the final turns away from his childhood: “Home. There was no home any longer. The journey into the unknown had begun. Like survivors of a shipwreck in a boat we drove through the gently surging ocean of the city.” With the help of a mentor modeled like Weiss’s own, he makes plans to begin his artistic education abroad, away from all he knows and that much better for it. These plot points come at the reader abruptly and non-linearly, giving the sense that for the narrator they’re all part of a collective past he’s too overwhelmed by to parse himself.
Yet for all his meandering and digressive leaps, the narrator never conveys a sense of being out of control of, or even surprised at, his own life’s path. Each line and memory feels immediate and raw, all the while reflected upon the mirror-smooth, even-tempered surface of a prose that indicates how the narrator, the readers’ Virgil, is hardly blind when it comes to his life. On the contrary: he’s viewing his past, and writing about it, from a vantage point of perfect hindsight. Embedded in the tortuous, Joycean, text are skillfully placed adages that force the reader to slow down, at the risk of missing such gems as: “Profound silence regained, everything was steeped in its long past.”
Supposedly “vaguely” or “dimly” remembered memories are piercingly specific and visceral. And because the narrator’s calling to art is never in question, the story’s core—his ownership of his place as an outsider in the world—is treated not as a state of confusion but one of assured understanding and acknowledgement. For example, when he and his family first move into a new house, he identifies within the unfamiliar walls “something fraught with expectancy” and admits “[t]he house remains strange to me, I cannot find my way around its interior”; at the same time, outside in the garden he ingests the pebbles and soil and sun like communion wafers and relishes in how “[h]ere out of doors my senses could expand and when I entered the summer house I entered a kingdom that belonged only to me, my self-chosen place of exile.” In this moment of supposed disorientation, the narrator still exerts a creative agency over his environment. This skill comes in handy at the end of the book when the stakes are higher, and the “kingdom” he’s about to conquer is no longer a canny, familial country house but an uncanny, bustling city teeming with people of greater, highly recognized genius.
The reasons for the narrator’s exile are largely internal, yet the circumstances of his upbringing are also major factors in his rebellion. (The full German title is Leavetaking from the Parents.) For one, his parents loom over him like invisible Pantopicon guards. Elaborating upon his relationship with his parents sketched out on page one, he peppers the novel with specific illustrative anecdotes. In one, his mother berates and belittles him: “You are not to let me know, I suffer sleepless nights because of you, I’m responsible for you and if you’re a failure, it will reflect on me.” With his father, his greatest bond is but one moment of mutually regretted punishment, inflicted under his mother’s orders. Likewise, at school, the narrator finds favor with neither students nor teachers, about whom he notes: “These small whistling stones, and the mocking voices over there, how well they knew that I was a fugitive, that I was in their power.” When he first feels the pangs of sexual urges, he looks to the women closest to him for relief. As children, he and his sister, Magrit, expose their soft nakedness to each other; even as she lies on her premature deathbed, he’s titillated by the sight of “the bright smooth belly that I had felt against my body, I saw the tiny breasts I had caressed, I saw the soft curve of her womb which I had pressed with my body.” After she’s dead, and when he’s a bit older, he turns to his governess, with whom he’s unable to perform.
With each such blow to his character, the narrator rallies to defy these low expectations and thus boost his own self-esteem. Following his mother’s tirade, he turns to look at a model city he’s built: “After my destructive games this was the first attempt to be constructive.” Lacking any real mentors at school, he seeks one for himself: the Hesse-inspired artist called Harry Haller. For all his sexual impotence, including the incestuous obsession with his sister and even his parents’ genitalia, one can easily imagine that this man’s legacy will not be human offspring but art. This is how his self-proclaimed Promethean self springs into being:
And my parents became resigned when they got the letter from the Authority, they gave up on me, but nevertheless with his sense of the practical, my father tried to make it an orderly leave-taking, and I was sent money, given a trial year, by the end of which I was to show I was equal to a painter’s calling. Now I was on my own, all to myself, no one to keep an eye on me, no one to fence me in, I could make of my day what I pleased, and so undertake the impossible, to be done with my old self and create an existence of my own.
There is no clear tone of extreme triumph or defeat here, but instead an anticipatory contentment in the actualization of his fate. He confirms this attitude at the end of the book when, after finding Prague not exactly the paradise he’d imagined, he expresses bleakly: “I took leave of my parents. The wheels of the railway thumped away beneath me with their ceaseless hollow drumbeats and the forces of my flying forward screamed and sang in incantatory chorus. I was on my way to look for a life of my own.” He brings together his outer and inner non-importance, claiming both as reasons for the existence of the “incantatory chorus” that is this book, the title of which puts a name to his movement into the known unknown.
Although there is an ostensible sequel to Leavetaking called Vanishing Point (1961), it is interesting to think of the first book’s end as a segue from Weiss’s fictionalized memory to his true autobiography. It was just after 1940, when the novel’s timeline ends, that Weiss’s career took off, and only after its publication did he begin contemplating Aesthetics of Resistance: his other works are then the fulfillment of both narrator’s and author’s leavetaking from childhood. Yet this ending point also benefits the reader’s relationship with the narrator. Characterized with such self-importance, and an assumption that a devoted reader is there to compensate for the lack of appreciation he’s had in life, the narrator seems like he’s on the path to becoming a rather pompous and unlikeable individual. Pre-leavetaking, he casts a spell upon the reader that is real and tangible, even enjoyable for all its grotesque and discomforting truths, and yet it is always that: a spell, with some conjurer behind it. Once the leavetaking of the title is achieved in the novel, the spell must be broken such that it can exist in the reader’s memories as purposefully and poetically as it does in the narrator’s. One must make a leavetaking from the narrator to his author.
What is best to take away from Leavetaking is the earnestness of its ambitions as well as its successful recreation of an adolescent artist on the cusp of adulthood. Weiss’s narrator is not so different from the average adolescent in his selfishness, but what does distinguish him is an exceptional gift of turning that messy time in his life into something more—into art. One can make the same claim of Weiss: he similarly blended truth and fiction, and wisely timed this publication late in his career. Having moved sufficiently past his youth and its vulnerability, Weiss was no longer threatened by his former self as embodied in the narrator of Leavetaking. Ventriloquized thusly by his alter-ego, Weiss writes: “my childhood lay decades behind me, I can depict it now with well-chosen words, I can take it apart and spread it out in front of me.” Weiss, like the narrator, found the “life of my own” he was looking for. - Jennifer Kurdyla

Understanding Peter Weiss by Robert Cohen


 

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