Ror Wolf - Incredibly funny and playful. Almost an anti-book, it takes as its basis the small, diurnal details of life, transforming these oft-overlooked ordinary experiences of nondescript people in small German villages into artistic meditations on ambiguity, repetition, and narrative


Ror Wolf, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions, Trans. by Jennifer Marquart, Open Letter Books, 2013.

Working in the traditions of Robert Walser, Robert Pinget, and Laurence Sterne, Ror Wolf creates strangely entertaining and condensed stories that call into question the very nature of what makes a story a story. Almost an anti-book, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions takes as its basis the small, diurnal details of life, transforming these oft-overlooked ordinary experiences of nondescript people in small German villages into artistic meditations on ambiguity, repetition, and narrative.
Incredibly funny and playful, Two or Three Years Later is unlike anything you’ve ever read—from German or any other language. These stories of men observing other men, of men who may or may not have been wearing a hat on a particular Monday (or was it Tuesday?), are delightful word-puzzles that are both intriguing and enjoyable.    

Ror Wolf’s miniature stories about everyday catastrophes undermine traditional storytelling. . . . Extremely fresh and incredibly funny.”Martin Halter

“One of the most important contemporary German writers.”Brigitte Kronauer

“Wolf takes familiar scraps from crime, romance, and adventure stories, rearranges them and glues them together with a melodious language. . . . The result is purely absurd and at the same time magical.”Peter Zemla

The narrator of Wolf’s “digressions” emerges as the most vivid and interesting character, and although many of these pieces have nominal plots, more present is the playful treatment of the nature of storytelling and the relationship between author and reader. “My purpose is to describe things as accurately as possible,” says the narrator, somewhat disingenuously. He makes the reader his confidante in dozens of nuggets that blur the line between memoir and fiction and that range in length from a single paragraph to almost 50 pages. Seemingly innocuous moments, like a woman whispering in a man’s ear at a company picnic, are given an air of significance. Longer digressions, similarly small in scope, are more playful. In “A Short Description of a Long Journey,” the writer makes “a few casual remarks” about a trip that takes him to the Congo, Guatemala, Nagasaki (where he sees “a giant, frozen moon that I’ll describe later”), Valparaiso, San Felipe, Santiago, and, among other locales, Bilbao, where he is astonished to meet an old acquaintance. And “The Forty-Ninth Digression” unfolds in 12 chapters that cover the writer’s tumultuous sea voyage, traversing several continents over 25 years, until an absurd noir-inspired encounter with a femme fatale ends the tale. Consistently quirky. - Publishers Weekly

This collection of short fiction interrogates the conventions of storytelling and obliterates the norms of psychological realism.
Wolf is a poet, a maker of collages and a writer of radio plays. Born in East Germany, he emigrated to the West at the age of 31. He has received many awards, including the Kassel Literature Prize for Grotesque Humor (2004). That Wolf received an award for grotesque humor (not to mention that there is such an award) is as good an indication as any of his work’s strangeness. Characters hit other characters on the head with various objects, are shipwrecked, fall down, and are witness to or victims of accidents. Wolf’s characters move with fantastic slowness or at normal speed; they wear hats, or they don’t; they regard certain events as important but then relate a meaningless story, at least to them. They reside in, are from or visit small towns. But what most characterizes Wolf’s stories is the absence of explanation, either for the stories themselves or for the characters’ motives. This is typical: “Essentially, everything about this man is either odd or utterly insignificant. I can’t comment on anything else.” There is no why, but a spirit of why not.
The best of these stories create an atmosphere of whimsy and menace. - Kirkus Reviews

This collection is where we get our surrealism on. Wolf is one wacky German with a penchant for the humorous and the grim. This two part collection begins with forty-eight fictions that focus on the comical nature of death (Isn’t death a hoot?!) and the second part is the twelve-part forty-ninth digression about the narrator’s surreal sojourn around the world. I like the word digressions in a titular way because a digression is, well, vague as far as literary definitions are concerned. They have no stereotypical form. This allows Wolf to exercise his right to be abstract, abstruse and ambivalent. He gives the reader no promises nor any solid ground. It’s all in the word, as aptly illustrated in this digression (in its entirety), “Not a Word:”
“Not a word was uttered by an unknown man as he embraced an unknown twenty-year-old from behind on Boppstrasse. She was able to get away and call for help. What the man actually wanted is unknown.”
Yes, these are Wolf’s imponderables that can entertain and exasperate. Details can be rare and makes us yearn for a character, a story, anything to hold onto for more than a few pages. And just when I thought I was out, he pulled me back in.

The forty-ninth digression can be read and reread because there is so much there. At first glance, it may seem like your typical surreal fare, but in it Wolf dares to become the surrealist’s surrealist, with the twist and turns of deep REM sleep that are vivid, real and inexplicable. It felt Jonkean (hello Gert!) at moments which I loved, but then there are passages that feel like Wolf’s signature style, eccentric and commanding:
“In ’54 I worked in several bars as an assistant waiter. Some claimed I sang from time to time. Yes, I sang from time to time, but only brieflly and very quietly, and only in the darkest corners behind the coat check. I slept in a tiny room cluttered with stacks of furniture, on a slit-open mattress reeking of decay. Otherwise, not much happened. Sometimes, I sang a little, it’s true, but all I basically cared about was that I didn’t drop the beer. One day, in March ’55, I received a letter that said I should come to B, to Berlin. Come to Berlin right away, while you’re still in this chapter.”
That is the moment I fell in love with Wolf. It appears in the first part of the forty-ninth digression. The story ascends and descends creating its own fluid yet extreme narrative vicissitudes. There are weighty moments limned with irony and wit so shrewd, like at the end of “The Anaconda’s Smile:”
Though I knew, naturally, that in this world you can’t be calm for a single moment. There is no entitlement to being calm.”
Simultaneously believable and unbelievable, Wolf creates his own structure of a digression with an architecture that has no walls, but many rooms. - Monica Carter

Open Letter Books takes chances with German writers, and for this we should be thankful. Last September, it released Benjamin Stein’s intertwining dual-narrative The Canvas, a reading experience that literally requires turning the book around and upside down. This year, the publishers continue the experimentation with Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions, a surrealist collection from Ror Wolf.
Among his vocations, Wolf is a collagist and poet; the two crafts inform this spare assemblage perfectly. Thick with mystery, Two or Three Years Later is divided into two parts: the first half consists of forty-eight vignettes no longer than a few pages, some as short as a single paragraph. These sketches are ambiguous, comical, and often grotesque peeks at the lives of amorphous German men. Death occurs often. The second half—the forty-ninth digression—is a twelve-part chronicle of the narrator’s dreamlike journey around the world. 
Wolf’s book is fast, sometimes outrageous, and always surreal. The short stories in the first half don’t track smoothly, but rather sputter along. The tales cough, stop, reverse, and start again. The style is refreshingly unique but can be wearisome. There are no solid characters or narratives onto which we can grab. 
A typical story begins with a diversion and then mixes in a series of distractions and sleight of hand before ending with a tease. “At the Barbershop,” for example, begins with a man committing a murder, “but that’s not the story I wanted to tell,” the narrator says with a sidestep. Other incidents are then recalled before the report ends abruptly: “However, such events are extremely rare, so it’s not entirely necessary to go too far into the details.” (This review is three times longer than “At the Barbershop.”)
Throughout Two or Three Years Later, one has the feeling that Wolf is merely a casual eyewitness reporting on-the-ground events, as in the case with “An Instance of Deep Contentment”: “On Tuesday night, a stranger opened the front door of the Kolb Pub in Worms, stepped up to the bar, ordered a beer and downed it in a single swig, then closed his eyes and gave off an overall impression of deep contentment.” This vignette is not only complete, it is chaste. Much of Wolf’s work is surreal, monstrous, and startling. A character in another tale toys with “the idea of shooting a bullet into his body, through his urethra,” to give one lucid example.
My mind tended to wander, until I reached the dreamlike “49th Digression: Twelve Chapters from an Exposed Life.” Here, at last, we follow a singular character through his nightmarish global travels. The closing chapters are more linear and descriptive but remain completely mad. The entire journey through one part of Africa “was like a creeping fever, a mucous congestion, and after all this creeping I was nothing more than the slimy discharge of my own head,” recalls the storyteller.  
Grasping for deeper meaning, I assigned various metaphors to the narrator, for instance Time and Death. In doing so, the forty-ninth digression transforms from absurdity to profundity. 
Throughout Two or Three Years Later, the author skips across scenes and events like a stone across calm but dark waters. I yearned for Wolf to pause occasionally, to throw me further into his deeply disturbing rabbit hole. As one story concludes, “But there was something more I wanted to say. If only I knew what.” -Shaun Randol

 Two or Three Years Later was originally published in German as a collection of forty-seven digressions, in 2003; this translation is of the expanded 2007 edition that encompasses forty-nine digressions. The difference is a sizable one: at fifty pages the new, final piece, 'The Forty-Ninth Digression' with its 'Twelve Chapters from an Exposed Life', takes up more than a third of the complete volume.         The pieces in Two or Three Years Later are unusual narratives. They hardly qualify as stories, and yet they're not just digressive pieces, either.
       The narrator is aware of an audience -- "Ladies and Gentlemen", he addresses it in opening one piece; "My dear Ladies and Gentlemen" is how he opens the final one -- and often very conscious of the fact that he is relating something to someone -- yet time and again he knots himself up in the very act of telling, and constantly he weighs what to reveal, and what not to. Typically -- if not always as specifically -- his story-journey begins:
Last Monday I began to describe a man, who turned the corner of 82nd Street with a tremendous yawn. I didn't want to describe his yawn, in any case it's indescribable, and I didn't want to describe how he turned the corner, but rather, I wanted to describe how this man -- or differently, differently. I'll start over, and with the following words:
       And on it goes in that vein. "After we've started four or five times, we'll start again", he suggests elsewhere. Or, abruptly he decides: "no, a different beginning".
       Even when he starts off with something that at first seems more promisingly story-like he opts for the fade and about-turn:
A man, a sales broker, walked through the door and fired six shots at a naked dentist, painting the bed red. A naked woman jumped out of the bed and disappeared through the back door. The dentist died, and the broker fled the country. But that's not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the following story:
       These are vignettes with characters and events that remain almost entirely elusive. 'The District Office Employee Outing' is a concise example, reading in its entirety:
During a company picnic in Dux, a well-dressed woman suddenly rushed to a man lying on the ground, bent over him, and whispered a few words into his ear, at which point they quickly disappeared into the neighboring darkness. I'll leave it to the reader to decide how this story continues, but I'm sure he'll draw the right conclusion in order to continue on to the next page.
       Even where he offers specificity -- assigning a name to a protagonist -- people and actions remain impossible to pin down with much certainty, and he refuses to follow through in any greater detail or focus. It's as if alighting on or even just glimpsing any person, object, or occurrence causes him to immediately want to look beyond it -- not deeper into it, as might be expected, but away from it. So even a major metropolis:
Perhaps I should talk about Berlin now, about this slowly evaporating city on the edge of Central Europe, about the pleasure and pain of Berlin. However, I don't believe that there is pleasure or pain in Berlin. I don't believe there is a Berlin. And if Berlin actually does exist, then I can only say that it's completely superfluous to talk about it. Berlin is completely unimportant, completely indifferent. Berlin is not worth discussing
       Even an 'evaporating city', one that by his definition is fading of its own accord, is still too substantial a subject. To briefly consider discussing it -- "Perhaps I should talk about Berlin now" -- is already sufficient to conclude it: "is not worth discussing".
       His reductio -- not so much ad absurdum, but of what amounts to willful negation -- finds its most complete expression in 'An Almost Complete Portrayal of the Conditions in Maybe Waabs', which reads in its entirety:
A man, whose name I’ve thankfully forgotten, came up to me and said something that I’ve thankfully forgotten. It happened in a city whose name escapes me, on a day I don’t remember, or on a night I don’t remember. I can’t say anything about the weather. I also can’t say what happened later. I know nothing about the beginning and even less about the end. I did, however, notice that never in my life had I experienced anything quite as dangerous as I had in this moment. But I forgot about it.
       Wolf essentially presents the inverse of experience, the hollow that remains when experience, memory, and substance have been removed. As such, much of Two or Three Years Later is the antithesis of the super-detailed wallows in experience that are so common in contemporary fiction. It's an unusual exercise, but one he manages well.
       'The Penultimate Story' -- the final one before the shift that comes with the volume-concluding 'The Forty-Ninth Digression' -- closes with the sentence: "No one can tell what happens next." It is this idea that Wolf has embraced completely, his world one in which there may be some causality -- but even if there is, it's unüberschaubar, beyond our grasp. These stories do not neatly lead from point A to B, and Wolf is not interested in what lies behind specific actions. Arguably, these stories lead nowhere -- but Wolf's bigger picture is of a world of such infinite uncertainty: regardless, "No one can tell what happens next". And this is Wolf's premise, as opposed to the many writers who insist on imposing order on their carefully imagined, structured, and recounted worlds. There's an artifice to Wolf's fictions (carefully structured and written, too, in their own way), but it is not the usual artifice of naturalist (or much other) fiction.
       The much longer (even as it is also sub-divided) final story represents a shift of sorts. It's a more sustained effort, a more valiant attempt at storytelling that even, for example, steadily advances chronologically (as an (auto)biographical account). Yet even as he sticks to chronological progression there are points when he reduces it simply to:
     Some time passed.
     Some more time passed.
     Now, I was met with a sad sight. So sad, that I could've never imagined it possible.
     Thankfully, some more time passed.
       There's a great deal of journeying in this piece, as the narrator travels far afield, finds himself going overboard and is, repeatedly, literally adrift. He sees the world, in a manner of speaking, but place remains elusive. He travels to the Americas and Australia, and wants to cross Africa on foot, for example, taking notes along the way, but the record he offers the reader is an active sort of reconstruction that skips over the details usually found in travelers' reports, more immersed in the act of documentation, of writing, than in presenting what was experienced and encountered. So also, for example, a chapter begins self-referentially:
     I assume it's likely that, on the next pages of my reports, I'll leave Africa to continue life in another part of the world.
       Typically, along the way, he also makes no impression. In a rare sequence describing actual activities he was engaged in he's little more than an unseen, unheard spectre:
     In Halifax I worked as a solo entertainer, but without noteworthy success; the audience didn't pay any attention to me, they paid, and left. In the London fog I stood at a small table at the weekly market and sold a cleaning agent. But no one stopped. No one listened to me.
       Only the concluding chapter offers more interaction -- still one-sided ("You sit there, Sir, and I'll talk; I'll make use of words while you remain silent") but certainly with some heightened tension and drama.
       In this configuration (as opposed to the original 2003 edition), Two or Three Years Later offers forty-eight digressions and one digressive novella that's a bit of an uneasy fit after the rest. Still, taken as a two-part collection (the many shorter pieces, the one longer one), it offers a variety of reading pleasures. Wolf's unusual approach(es) make for pieces that constantly surprise. It is storytelling that reassesses itself at every turn. And Wolf refuses to let readers find the stable hold of realist fiction in his narratives, yet he does so without resorting to surrealist trickery -- for that alone already the pieces are of interest; it's not something one sees often.
       Admittedly, one has to be receptive to what Wolf is doing here; if not, there's no doubt that these pieces can quickly become enervating and tiresome. One has to approach them in the proper mood to get anything out of them; I know there are times when I couldn't put up with this sort of stuff. So if you don't take to it at first, put the book away and try again later; if and once you are open to what Wolf is doing, it's really quite remarkable. 
- M.A.Orthofer

“A man, whose name I’ve thankfully forgotten, came up to me and said something that I’ve thankfully forgotten.”
So begins “An Almost Complete Portrayal of the Conditions in Maybe Waabs”—at ninety-three words, one of the shortest of shorts in this collection. It is a story about the narrator’s “most dangerous” moment. “Thankfully,” he can remember nothing about it, but this good fortune does not extend to his reader, who is left to wonder how the writer can claim his “portrayal” is “almost complete,” yet he is all but unable to remember or render it.
All of the “Forty-Nine Digressions” in this collection will have a similar impact on readers. The pieces, and Wolf is correct in calling them digressions, defy analysis. Perhaps a comment can be made about plot, a character or two, or a setting or an item of dialogue, but they do not seem to be elements of a coherent whole. Sometimes an overall impression—of dread, misfortune, or pleasure—can be ascertained despite the vagueness, circularity, and repetitiousness. But more often than not, the narrator is unreliable: he has forgotten, is “not in the mood,” or will not continue because what happened is “utterly meaningless.”
Ironically, the resulting surreality prompts a close reading, which, ironically again, provides little in the way of payoffs or meanings unless readers consider that the “funny story” is rarely to be found in plot, characters, or action, but in the narrator’s intrusions and intersections. Wolf, often posing as reporter or chronicler, cannot help but stumble comically—like in a television routine featuring Jonathan Winters or Lucille Ball—into his story, disputing details with his characters and himself (“it happened on a Monday; but it may have been a Tuesday”). Or, he may exit the story to check the soup, which is warming on a hotplate and “still doing good.”
Perhaps Wolf’s age (born in 1932) and background in radio (his plays and “sound collages” were well known in Germany in the 1960s) may shed some light on this madness. And it may also be true that Europeans know better than to read Wolf without first checking their sense of reality at the door. For Wolf, pleasure, pain, indeterminacy, and confusion trump our sense of the world and meaning. And this, perhaps, is the statement Wolf is making through his work: that truth is elusive, at best, and it is presumptuous to think one can reveal that which can only be obscure. - Joe Taylor

Two or Three Years Later is a unique collection of short stories, many only half a page long. Each sentence has been distilled down to only the essential words, yet Wolf’s stories retain a very conversational quality. He often speaks directly to the reader, saying he is sure that the reader is curious to hear this or that about the story in question. Sometimes Wolf will cut himself off mid-sentence and begin his story again. All of these techniques make the bare bones of the writing process visible throughout this book. The reader becomes a part of the author’s struggle to find meaning in his characters and their lives, yet the confidence with which Wolf displays this struggle allows the reader to trust that there is meaning here.
The search for meaning in our everyday lives and in the lives of unknown strangers is paramount. Many episodes are told with little direct commentary, instead consisting of a series of events. On the first page of a two-and-a-half page story, “Ein Unglück im Westen, am 13. Mai” (“Misfortune in the West on May 13th”), a nameless man goes for a walk and sees a homeless man die, a car hits a tree before sinking into a nearby lake, another man falls off a roof, and a set of keys are lost in a canal. On the second page, a man sees a woman almost get hit by a bicyclist, a man reports that a body has fallen on top of his car, and while the police find out that this man is a criminal many times over, the homeless man dies at the same moment in another city. The story ends with the author telling the reader that he met the nameless man who went for a walk and wrote down his story.
This constant author-reader dialogue begs the question, where is the real story? Is the real story that of the nameless man walking down the street, or is it the story of an author writing a story? The ultimate conclusion I came to was that the process of writing, the examination of the ordinary and the extraordinary, is what is meaningful, and Wolf is seeking to create a dialogue with his readers about exactly that. Influenced by surrealism and absurdism, Wolf constantly probes the various situations that people create, and these stories reflect his satisfaction with the idea of art for art’s sake.
Admittedly, I found these stories repetitive and a bit frustrating at first. What changed my mind was the very last story, which is significantly longer than the rest and much more revealing of Wolf’s intentions. Told in the first person, this last story is broken into twelve short chapters. Set after the war, (when a nameless stranger asks the narrator which war, he replies, “any war”), the narrator drifts along on trains and boats, from Europe to Africa. In place of an author-reader dialogue is a narrator-stranger dialogue, and here Wolf reveals the questions he expects his readers to ask. I began rereading some of the earlier stories, looking for the questions I, as the reader should ask. In one very short story, Wolf writes that a man tries to grab a woman on the street, but the woman gets away, and nobody knows what the man wanted. Such a brief and seemingly meaningless account actually provokes the reader to finish reading the story, to wonder what that man really wanted.
From this perspective, Two or Three Years Later is a very engaging and active text, despite its first impression. Whether Wolf is arguing with himself over whether or not to write a story about a town called Mörfelden (and thereby writing a story about Mörfelden), or whether he recounts the uneventful events of a town hall meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, the reader cannot help but be involved in the process of creating a story.
Ror Wolf had been a mainstay in the German cultural scene since the 1960s, experimenting with collage art, radio collages, and other audio media. His star power probably encouraged many German readers to wade through this metafictional collection of stories. Although American readers—are less familiar with Ror Wolf—andmight not have the same motivation, it is ultimately worth the journey. - Hannah Johnson

Because I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another. Because today there are only states of being -- all stories have become obsolete and clichéd, and have resolved themselves. All that remains is time. - Bela Tarr, in an interview about why he makes movies
German author Ror Wolf's novel Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions avoids description for reasons that are difficult to describe. In Wolf's art as in life, banal things happen to ordinary people: a man says something, a man loses his violin, a man cries out, a man (a waiter from Cologne) gets a bean stuck in his ear, a man buys a sausage at a bockwurst, a man makes a throaty moan ("but it's entirely trivial and hardly worth mentioning") and a man, a flat roof specialist (but also a different man, a man from Unterschleißheim) has his hat sat on.
But far from being boring, the book's numbered chapters are deliciously surreal and subversive. Striking a precarious balance between nonsense and gnosis, Wolf steers his reader into one digression and out the next. Certain incidental mysteries -- lost hats, stolen luggage, an explosion during the singing of "Happy Birthday," a body found "in a lockable bathroom alcove in the American city of Tulsa, in northern Oklahoma, two hundred and thirty-three meters above sea level" -- are almost, but never quite fully, described.
If Wolf's narrative is a snake eating itself, inside that snake, there are two smaller snakes: Laurence Sterne and Robert Walser.
Then again, Wolf's digressions and meta-fictional mischief (respectively) make his predecessors' narratives seem linear and unaware by comparison, for Forty-Nine Digressions is a book that unwrites itself in its telling. One that -- in (a)voiding the monoliths of character and plot development -- consumes itself in the narrative process.
Take for example, this passage from the chapter "A Gradual Expansion of Dread":

Then I wrote down the following sentence: Around 80 degrees latitude, the rats had bred to such an extent that nothing could be saved from them. They devoured pelts, clothes, shoes, the beds and blankets, they devoured the provisions, they devoured the entire ship and went under; they sank, and while they sank they continued to devour and breed. The dogs that had been brought on board to kill the rats had also been devoured -- their howling could be heard in the fog before it became completely silent.
Then I stood alone on a piece of floating ice a meter thick, around 80 degrees latitude and in the middle of the night. I bent over the rigid paper and wrote down an entirely incomprehensible sentence.
...It was Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, who pointed out that "In art, 'content' is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation." And it is Wolf's character, Netzenstein (who "certainly seemed to have no clue as to what he was doing in my story") who makes it clear that the content of the story is not the whole story. In fact, far from it. Because stories are always pretences for some other, unspeakable, non-existent truth.

Forty-Nine Digressions is a book that makes the reader aware of the act and the experience of reading. Continually thwarting expectations, the stories induce a kind of hypnosis, a kind of numbness that arrests the reader's despotic demands that the story do something. A monotony sets in. We go way out, until there are only ice floes, fathomless green seas, holes within holes, sinkings, drownings, and other allegorical states related to the feeling of being helpless, stranded, abandoned, and tumbled into the void. One possible response to Wolf's act of unmooring the reader is Pizzagalli's "Prison," which creates out of the disorder of language a new narrative, one that houses and makes room for aberrance and rebellion. Audre Lourde's aphorism that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" is more true than ever -- however, the master's language, it turns out, may be (de)constructed to imprison him, freeing him of his tyranny. - Jessica Michalofsky

From its opening page, Ror Wolf’s Two or Three Years Later defies expectations. This collection of forty-nine ‘digressions’ (Wolf’s term), translated from German by Jennifer Marquart and published by Open Letter Books, takes the reader on a disorienting journey through a series of fast-hitting, unresolved, and zany stories. Located at the intersection of anti-novel and metafictional farce, Wolf blends his own spare style with absurd setups, half plots and tragic loneliness. We never get inside. We never arrive. Hell, sometimes we never even depart. Instead, we bounce about on a pointed quill of uncertainty and wild merriment.
Of the forty-eight miniature stories in this collection, only three are longer than two-and-a-half pages. Many take up less than a page of text. The last story, “The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from an Exposed Life,” is forty-nine pages long.  (Wolf does seem to enjoy these little riddles.)
Born in eastern Germany in 1932, Ror Wolf is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. Two or Three Years Later is the first of Wolf’s books readily available in English. He emigrated west in 1953, working in a variety of fields before studying with the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory.
Wolf plucks his stories from the edge of the familiar, so that we recognize some part of the architecture, some cornice or balustrade that hints at a larger design, but the building never materializes. Instead, we are left with only fragments, an incomplete blueprint that distorts assumptions and dismisses significance.
Take the story “Neither in Schleiz, nor Anywhere Else in the World,” in which Wolf announces his ambiguous intention in the title itself, not really a title but the negation of a title. Then the opening lines: “A man who prefers anonymity, a certain X—his name is irrelevant—arrives one day, one morning, one afternoon…It’s all the same in a city whose name we won’t disclose. He does nothing, which is what we wanted to report, since what he does is so insignificant that that’s the only significant thing to say about it.”
Notice how the story races ahead of the reader, all the while undercutting expectations. In a few sentences, Wolf silences character, plot, setting and theme with the cold-blooded efficiency of an assassin. What’s left, the reader reasonably wonders? But don’t expect Wolf to deliver an easy answer. He goes on to further nullify, through a series of parallel non-descriptions, any remaining hope of familiarity: “If he contemplates something, it is without feeling; if he touches something, it is without reason.” He’s erasing the story, rather than inventing it. He tells us nothing, and shows us even less. This story, like most in the collection, becomes almost impossible to summarize because it never arranges itself into any order.
Again and again, through a series of seemingly disconnected anecdotes and halting starts, Wolf declines to assemble. This is more than just post-modernist style. The collection doesn’t drift toward absurdism, it wallows in an almost nihilistic refusal to conform. And yet there’s a sturdy elegance about each of these pieces, a cold, biting quality that binds and spreads, so that what remains is a refreshingly pure, playful examination of stories without meaning (and, by implication, stories that do appear to have meaning).
“In a French Kitchen. In a Swiss Lake. In a Berlin Closet.” is a half-page story that delivers the accounts of three tragic accidents. A man intentionally blows himself up with dynamite. A golfer drowns after throwing his golf bag into a lake. Three seventy-year-old men playing cards burn themselves to death. Wolf relates these incidents without any context, emotion or explanation. “All three burned. This was in Berlin, near Nollendorfplatz.” Thus the story ends.
In “On the Edge of the Atlantic,” Wolf’s turns comically ornery. “A man yelled out in fear. Shortly thereafter, he died. That’s basically what happened, in any case, generally and essentially.” Nothing else happens. No explanation is offered. No narrative details fill in the missing pieces.  In fact, what Wolf supplies in place of the expected is a direct admonishment: “Of course, the reader deserved nothing better than the waves crashing over the man’s body, and the rain rolling in simultaneously, streaming down from above. Maybe he didn’t even deserve that.”
The idea of the reader not deserving the image, the prose that Wolf refused to render, certainly strikes a sinister, hilarious tone.
This roguish antagonism is embroidered in the text—between expectations and outcomes, between narrator and reader. It reveals that the patterns here are non-patterns, or anti-patterns at least. Uncertainty and doubt prevail. The stories rest on conditionality hinged together with the subjunctive mood.
Wolf does offer something of a clue to his aesthetic in the two-and-a-half page story, “At Nightfall.”
Last Monday I began to describe a man, who turned the corner of 82nd Street with a tremendous yawn. I didn’t want to describe his yawn, in any case it’s indescribable, and I didn’t want to describe how he turned the corner, but rather I wanted to describe how this man—or differently, differently. I’ll start over.
Wolf goes on to make nine aborted efforts to describe the simple act of a man turning a corner. “No, that’s weak, and not very good either. Maybe I should begin like this…” Is Wolf showing us the impossibility of language to adequately describe reality? Is he unmasking the fickle power of words to conjure anything? Or is he just having fun? If a story can’t get the simple act of turning a corner right, how can it hope to tackle the larger issues of morality, life, death, meaning? Wolf seems to be reminding us that, sometimes, it’s better not to try.
Artists are always trying to kick down the doors of tradition and form. The artist is always radicalizing his art; testing boundaries, pressing forward. Ror Wolf — with his philosophic roots in the Frankfurt School, famous for its intense critique of reason, the Enlightenment and modernity — appears to be of this ilk. His writing challenges the very notion of meaning and interconnectedness. In the end, the only thread that holds these stories together is no thread.
“I’ve traveled throughout this entire loud, reverberating world,” Wolf writes in “The Power of Song in Nevada, my favorite story in the collection.  “I’ve traveled out of a profound disposition for the echoing sea. I’ve heard ship bands and chamber orchestras, I’ve experienced the howling of the wind and the wild shouts of sailors—but all of that is nothing compared to the men’s choir I heard in Nevada.”
I don’t know what this means, especially when Wolf tells us how awful this choir was. But somewhere in the peregrinations and uncertainty, somewhere in these digressions, these strange and wondrous non-stories, the writer searches for the true note, for the profound disposition. It’s anyone’s guess if he’ll ever find it.Richard  Farrell