2/28/14

Giulio Mozzi - In the eight stories of this collection, we see a steady reworking of the idea of the world as a fallen Eden. Here, in Mozzi’s garden, quasi-allegorical characters seek knowledge of something beyond their shaken realities: they have all lost something and react by escaping, retreating from reality into a world, as Mozzi says, that is “fantastic, mystical, absurd”




Giulio Mozzi, This Is the Garden, Trans. by Elizabeth Harris, Open Letter Books, 2014.  
excerpt

“I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.” 
Federico Fellini

Giulio Mozzi’s first book, This Is the Garden (winner of the 1993 Premio Mondello), astonished the Italian literary world for its commanding vision and the beauty of its prose. In the eight stories of this collection, we see a steady reworking of the idea of the world as a fallen Eden. Here, in Mozzi’s garden, quasi-allegorical characters seek knowledge of something beyond their shaken realities: they have all lost something and react by escaping, retreating from reality into a world, as Mozzi says, that is “fantastic, mystical, absurd.” A purse-snatcher mails his victim’s letters back to her, including a letter of his own. An apprentice longs to be a real person, a worker, in an anonymous business where Kafkaesque machines cut nondescript pieces from an unnamed raw material. A man finds, in his endless activity of picking up broken glass in his garden, a metaphor for gathering the pieces of his soul. Intensely imagistic, mystical, mysterious, This Is the Garden is a complicated, unsentimental—yet also heartfelt—exploration of spirituality, love, and the act of creation by a master of the short-story form. 


"Gorgeously rooted in the best modernist tradition of writers like Italo Calvino and Antonio Tabucchi, Giulio Mozzi is among the most fiercely literary authors emerging from Italian literature today. These stories, which in so many different ways are about writing itself, are like rivers cutting through the northern Italian countryside—lush, limpid, exotic. Elizabeth Harris's translation beautifully renders the noble grit of Mozzi's distinctive voice." —Minna Proctor

Eight elegantly translated short stories—cryptic, wry and witty.
Mozzi tends to focus on the outré and is masterful at creating individuals in isolation. “Cover Letter,” the first story in the collection, is a love letter of sorts from a professional purse-snatcher to a woman who was a victim of his predations. He lingers over the contents, speculating about her life and loves, and evokes her presence from the artifacts he finds in the purse. By turns apologetic, proud, empathetic and confessional, he quotes to her from two letters he’s found in her purse and speculates about their significance in her life before he sends them back to her. The next story is “The Apprentice,” a long story about an apprentice in a shop who tries to work his way up from messenger boy to skilled laborer, though he’s subject to the vagaries of office politics and nepotism. “Claw” is a story about Yanez, a recluse in a small village who’s visited every day for over 20 years by the only woman who seems to care about his existence. One day, an Englishman, self-described as a “saint,” comes to “save [the villagers’] souls from certain death...if they refused his help,” and his plea is intriguing enough to lure Yanez out of the house he’s scarcely left for years. “Tana,” one of Mozzi’s most cryptic stories, concerns a woman who comes across an angel, complete with wings, and this angel inadvertently (and ironically) helps her overcome her aversion to sexuality.
Although Mozzi’s style is crisp and straightforward, the stories themselves are beautifully nuanced and elliptical. - Kirkus Review

For Giulio Mozzi, the garden referred to in the title of his first published work is both a metaphor for human failing and a gloomy, declarative argument that paradise exists around us yet, if only we could enter it.
Winner of the 1993 Premio Mondello, the influence of Guilio Mozzi’s eight story collection This is the Garden on Italian literature long predates the English language translation of the book. The first of over twenty-five published works by Mozzi, these stories read intimately despite the careful anonymity of their narrators, all of whom live introspectively inside vivid imaginations that are  dislocated almost completely from their physical surroundings.
In “Cover Letter,” a thief imagines what life is like for the woman whose purse he’s stolen, and sends her back the letters he’s found inside along with one of his own.
The narrator of the next story, “The Apprentice,” is a young errand-runner who wants nothing more than to move up the ranks at his job, to man machines for which no function has been revealed, and by which no named object is produced.
In almost every story the reader is privy to a train of thought, or the process of thought itself, without learning much at all about the identity of the lonely thinker. Longing, desire, resignation, and hope are implied without any indication of personal history, and it is through keeping up this strange dislocation that Mozzi’s mastery reveals itself.
Two stories stand apart in that they are more narrative and deal directly with the spiritual. In “Claw,” an elderly man who spends years alone takes house visits regularly from only one local woman confesses all to an Englishman new to his village, and in “Tana”, a girl paradoxically comes to term with sexual embodiment — her own and others’ — through an unlikely encounter with a filthy angel whom she lends a bath and place in her bed.
Some of the shorter stories, like “Trains” (about a man bound for the city in which his ex-lover lives) and “Glass” (in which someone struggles to find themselves in the pieces of a broken window), are vehicles for sweet reflections, but feel incomplete unto themselves even as they speak to the other stories. “I understand now,” the narrator in “Glass” tells us, “that gathering shards strengthens my soul, comforts it, helps us to see that even if the windows have shattered, they can still be recovered, piece by piece . . . And I’m glad this is the sort of work you can’t finish — really, it would be extremely sad to finish, to find yourself with your soul all in one hand.”
If only the original letter writer in “Cover Letter” could hear the shard-collector as he writes sadly of time spent in his garden that “once in a while . . . I think you’re in the garden, too, and this thought is so intense that your soul, wherever you are, feels drawn here, and it leaves your body for just an instant . . . then slips back to you before you’ve even noticed it’s gone.”
If only Tana could truly know another person, she need not learn that even heaven on earth itself cannot eliminate the human feeling of fracture. - Emily Oppenheimer

“Dear Signorina” begins Cover Letter, the first story in Giulio Mozzi’s captivating collection This is the Garden.  It’s a story that’s not, as its name would suggest, about a hopeful candidate applying for a legitimate job, and instead goes on to explain the many reasons behind pulling a criminal one.  For it seems that in Mozzi’s world, even the lowliest of thieves can get bored, lonely, and introspective, and even if it can only ever be one-way, they still need someone to connect with on an emotional level.  It’s this story about a purse snatcher returning letters to his victim that he found while rifling through her bag, with his own running commentary attached about their possible meaning, that sets the stage for an all-out exploration of what it’s like to live a life in which you’ve become boxed in by your own personal rules of confinement.  The thief must adhere to his own set of homegrown standards and practices for his personal safety and ongoing survival, but it’s these very things that prohibit him from forming any kind of lasting, meaningful attachment with another human being.  Yet still he tries.
In The Apprentice we meet a young man who is all too eager to prove his worth and move up the ladder from delivery boy to machine operator.  What is this company he works for called?  What does it manufacture?  These details are deemed unimportant and thus are left unexplored and unanswered, for what is most critical is the thought patterns of this young man and how sees himself in relation to the world around him.  In heartbreaking detail, Mozzi captures the inner struggles of a person standing frozen in place.  He’s unable to move beyond the job he currently possesses, but not for the reasons he originally attributes as the root causes behind his failure.  Ultimately he learns that not achieving your dreams isn’t exactly the worst thing that can happen, for finally becoming cognizant of the realities surrounding your mundane existence can be far more damaging to the soul.
Themes of isolation and longing for connection continue to drive forward and tie together the remaining stories of the collection as well.  In On the Publication of my First Book we’re introduced to a first-time author speaking plainly about, amongst other things, why he believes his work to be unpublishable.  In Trains we meet Mario, a young man who decides to take a trip because he can’t quite figure out how to properly interpret the meaning of five words that were written to him in a letter from an ex-lover.  And then of course there’s Tana.
In this story, a lonely young girl who spends the bulk of her time hiding in her room encounters an Angel.  A single peek at his “smooth and clean” sex organ helps her work through a complicated experience from her past that’s been holding her hostage in the present day.  It’s a magical, intoxicating piece that speaks directly to our universal ability to become trapped by certain moments, unable to escape the lasting impressions they’ve stamped upon us.  What better way could there possibly be to conquer an accidentally acquired revulsion to the male anatomy then with a close up inspection of a divine being’s gloriously scent-free penis?
Candid and bursting with a raw affection for its subjects, each of the stories in Mozzi’s collection is as inviting as it is revealing.  Through them, we’re reminded that even though our individual and collective existences may be filled with flaws, life still holds the promise of the unknown and presents us with an infinite number of chances to alter our course for the better.
Is it true that this world IS the garden, a fallen paradise as the cover so emphatically proclaims?  All of Mozzi’s dynamic characters seem to believe so, and as they stumble through their personal explorations into the inner workings of life, love, work, and belief, it becomes harder and harder not to agree with their assessment. -

What is a garden? For Adam and Eve, it is the warm kingdom of innocence from which they have fallen. For Candide, it is the final plot he must dedicate his life to cultivating. For Giulio Mozzi, the garden resembles a Borgesian labyrinth—a mysterious, perplexing place in which people constantly write, read, and rewrite the ever-shifting planes of some elusive salvation. Mozzi’s garden is both the sandbox of the imagination and also an idyll his sad, thoughtful characters can never seem to achieve.
Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is easily the most rewarding book I’ve read this year. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris for Open Letter Books, these short stories each explore a combination of metaphors that plague and sanctify the human experience: the word, the letter, the sheltering garden, and the postlapsarian dream of succor.
The first piece in this brief, eight-story collection gives us a petty thief writing to his most recent victim. He is returning two letters he found in the purse he snatched. While detailing the thought process of a criminal observing potential victims, he digresses into disclosures such as that letter-writing seems more honest than the ephemeral, blunt honesty of direct conversation: “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me, and perhaps that’s making me too verbose; my apologies.” Such an existentially conscious and narcissistic character offers his victim enough gems about the letters that perhaps she’ll even forget her material suffering: 
“Anyway, since your friend’s descriptions were completely unreal, I took to them at once. Children view reality this way, too, and I’m not sure if it’s instinct or habit that makes adults tell fairytales and stories to reinforce this idea of the world as somehow magical, or if adults are too lazy to explain the way things really work.”
A perfect opening to a story collection, “Cover Letter” tells us what to expect: very fine sentences, outcast characters, tacit ruminations on everything from first impressions to deontology and consequentialism, all held in check by a steady hand. Control is the order of the day and it is mesmerizing to see how much Mozzi packs into just under 120 pages.
His Kafkaesque characters—old, young, male, female, adroit, spacey—do not know what plagues them, necessarily. The second story, “The Apprentice,” tells of a young man who wishes to be more than just a delivery boy, but rather a true apprentice who might grow in time into “a man, a worker.” He experiences the joys and pitfalls of laboring for an uninterested boss who might hold, not only the keys, but the existential manual, to his future. He suffers the futility and anomie of his work, furiously certain that “he’s certainly much more than nothing, even if he doesn’t know what.” The boy haplessly considers the merits of punishment as biblical path to salvation, recalling the garden in which men first foolishly attempted to be like gods.
Each of these stories does indeed evoke or otherwise explicitly depict a garden, but the collection is not purely religious in nature. It’s thoroughly human, it’s Kafka, it’s experience of love and the puzzles of human connection and communication.
“To Mario, the dreams you can’t remember are the most important kind—they protect your vital secrets.” Mario is whiling the time on a five-hour train ride that reminded me in its style of Venedikt Erofeev’s masterful fugue Moscow to the End of the Line.  “Today, Mario is headed to Rome where, perhaps, a woman is waiting for him. A few days ago, he got a letter from her saying: ‘I miss you’ and ‘I wish you were here.’ But the letter didn’t say: ‘Please come.’”
“What he thought were her dreams turned out to be his instead.” What a line—and Mozzi offers many like this. “Trains” is my favorite for its relentless burrowing—again, a Kafka reference of Mozzi’s—into the seismic trepidations of the romantic experience.
Beyond the raw emotion and deft psychology contained in these stories, each of Mozzi’s parables drifts into the tall grass of that other garden—the garden of creation, of story-telling, of finding the right word. 
“You might say that in some letters, maybe all letters, the important thing is only said after the final sentence, in the silence that follows.”
Or: “I ask myself what compels all this to hurl itself headlong into something so precise and defined as a story that has a beginning and an end. I think there must be some kind of grudge against reality in all this.”
But fear not—Mozzi does not stake his claim to meta-narrative navel-gazing. The experience that fascinates him most seems to be more primal, more guttural: a person’s simple search for how to speak to another, for how to begin, for how to end: “There’s something I keep trying to say, that grammar won’t permit, won’t allow.” 
“I’ll never forget this pain. I beg you, all of you here, and I think I’ve finally managed to say what I had to, after all this hemming and hawing that was more from fear than anything else, because just bringing up certain things is scary, I beg you, please, try and understand my pain even a little, or at least try to accept it as something that could happen and could be true. The books I’ve read have taught me many things, but above all, they’ve taught me to preserve my life and to tuck my voice away inside my life and keep it safe—my voice, unique and private: my unique treasure and my health. I love you all.”
This is not easily digestible and forgotten. Mozzi’s is a European sentence—meandering, introspective, borderline Proustian at times. It is a sentence that demands its place on the page, that, without meaning to, reminds us of how many sentences don’t merit the space we give them. His words breathe in the vastness of their own possibilities, do not want to waste their breath. 
“There have been many times, during intense conversations full of affection and emotion, with people I loved very much or at least wanted to love very much, that my words slowly disappeared, until all I had left in my head was one tiny phrase, or a few phrases, incongruous, but full of meaning, mysterious phrases, impossible to say. And in those moments, you can almost hear your brain creaking, straining to raise too great a weight. To say these words, to transform their mystery into a simple sequence, compressions and decompressions of air, to hear them disperse, scattered, useless, this would have been too much. As I stop writing this letter, I apologize to you that I can’t even sign it. Good luck.”
But to rave about the maestro’s sentences is insufficient—what of plot, drama, explosions? There is plenty of that here, in Mozzi’s dream garden. The conflict is buried deep in and burrows deep into the psyche of these perturbingly mundane characters. Mozzi’s little gem is not called This is the Garden, but rather This Is the Garden. The first thought upon finishing the last story of the collection is: ah, yes—there—I must return. —Tom Faure

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve freely eat fruit from the Tree of Life, while avoiding that of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then, the serpent appears. Suggesting Eve should eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, the serpent tells her that if she does so she will not die as she fears — she will simply gain knowledge and so become more like God. So Eve tastes the fruit and shares it with Adam and soon nothing and everything has changed. Suddenly, the pair understands they are naked so they weave fig leaves to cover their newly shameful bodies. Seeing these clothes, God understands what has happened but first questions the couple before punishing them. Cast out of the Garden, Eve will feel pain in childbirth while Adam will be compelled to labor. As for the serpent, he will crawl in the dust.

This simple story from Genesis has been retold and expanded by many in order to illustrate aspects of man’s relationship with God. For instance, John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, shows Eve’s misstep with the serpent occurring only after she has convinced Adam that it would be best for each of them to be alone in separate parts of the garden; her desire for independence and solitude is a possible weakness. More recently, the author Giulio Mozzi has taken up this tale of disobedience and knowledge, if not quite so literally, in his collection of eight short stories, This Is The Garden, published originally in Italian in 1993 and winner of the Premio Mondello.
Mozzi’s semi-allegorical stories use concise and simple, though somewhat cold, prose. Effortless to read, there is a rainy-day, pensive quality to these tales, though overall his style seems bent on making a reader think more than feel as they explore the themes contained within the Genesis story. There is also a notable lack of dialogue and many of the actual confrontations between characters have taken place either offstage or in the past; most of the action is remembered by or filtered through only one participant. In short, there’s no immediacy to much of the action, all urgency is contained in each character’s thoughts. Such storytelling suggests that any meaning attached to life — or even our own actions — evolves slowly and only after prolonged meditation.
“The Apprentice” is the standout tale in the collection. A nameless apprentice in an untitled factory manufacturing unknown products slowly comes to realize that he will never transform into a worker like those toiling around him (as his job title suggests). From the start, he is different than the others because of his understanding and attitude toward work:
The apprentice knows that work is a punishment; he learned it at catechism when he was just a child: Adam and Eve were driven from earthly paradise for wanting to be like God, and they were condemned to toil for everything they needed, condemned, in other words, to work. In earthly paradise, the apprentice thinks, everything must have been within your grasp; idleness must have been beautiful, free from any threat of disgust. The apprentice is glad for this punishment of having to work; this seems like the proper remedy, the proper cure, like a sick person takes his medicine: why would he refuse? But the apprentice feels a little afraid when he notices that work is going well, when work pulls him away from his disgust: if he enjoys his work, it’s not a punishment. The apprentice is convinced if people like to work, if they find it satisfying, then they’ve made a grave mistake; these people, he thinks, will work their entire lives without gaining the most important thing they can from work, what follows punishment: freedom from sin, and so, the happiness to come.
Such are the thoughts of the apprentice, so absolutely unlike those of the newcomer, who becomes nearly indistinguishable from the other workers on the job almost at once. And so the story ends with a realization that no one but he is a “permanent apprentice,” a person who “has no definite form, is inexhaustible, can take on any form required and make this temporary form seem real, as if it has always been his coherent state.” If work is punishment, it is indirect and comes in the form of desolation.
In the story “Tana,” a young student finds a dirty and disheveled angel in the rainy streets on her way home from classes. She sneaks him into her family’s apartment and draws him a bath; the angel cleans himself and then she brings him to her room. In the kitchen, she discovers she no longer understands the language her father, brother, and mother speak and after eating supper with them, she returns to the bathroom and then her own room. Before sleep arrives, she studies the naked angel, and remembers a recent experience in which she touched a young man’s penis for the first time and felt it spring to life in her hand. Fearfully, she ran from the boy but now she gives a light kiss to the angel’s penis, which does not rise in response. The following morning, she wakes with a fever and the angel is gone; as illness earns her time off from school, she knows she will be the envy of her friends.
In “Cover Letter,” a purse snatcher sends a letter to his victim, an attractive young woman he stalked in a department store. After finding two letters from a friend in her purse, he returns them to her with his comments on their contents in a letter of his own.  In “Trains,” a bookstore worker named Mario travels by train to different cities on his days off and there passes his time alone, eating in bars, stopping in stores; this time, he has boarded a train to Rome and is traveling toward a woman he once loved, hoping to immediately return without seeing her and repeating past mistakes. In “F.,” a magistrate working to prosecute the mafia has been sequestered for his own protection and so he wishes only for another opportunity to be with his beloved wife.
In each story, then, Mozzi creates characters isolated from other people (and from reality) and forced by lonely circumstance to contemplate their lives. One and all they feel confusion and, much like Adam and Eve, some unexpected loss though not the grief felt by the hapless pair after being ejected from Eden no, this is the bewilderment and sadness experienced when they first comprehend the innocence lost, the virtue they can never reclaim. In these stories, a dull ache is at the core of every character and each is only dimly aware of their inherent good and inescapable evil. If, as Sartre would have it, hell is other people, solitude, Mozzi would suggest, is no heaven either. - Susan Scutti

About the Author: Giulio Mozzi has published twenty-six books—as fiction writer, poet, and editor. He is primarily known for his story collections, especially This Is the Garden, which won the Premio Mondello. “The Apprentice” (included in this collection) appears in an anthology of the top Italian stories of the twentieth century. He has even created an imaginary artist, Carlo Dalcielo, whose work has appeared in public exhibitions and books, like Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2010.


Jürg Laederach here pursues the ambition of forcing all of human existence into a single novel. space is compressed to the suffocating dimensions of a single mind, while single moments are expanded cubistically into entire landscapes. Bodies are vivisected and reassembled, and language is invaded, exploded, and reassembled



Jürg Laederach, The Whole of Life, Trans. by Geoffrey C. Howes, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.

“I can assure you that no movie will ever achieve the speed of prose. Human beings just haven’t realized that yet.” —Jürg Laederach.

With tongue resolutely in cheek, saxophonist, critic, poet, and one-time enfant terrible of Swiss literature Jürg Laederach here pursues the ambition of forcing all of human existence into a single novel. The Whole of Life tells the story of a man, Robert “Bob” Hecht, in three sections: “Job,” about work and looking for work; “Wife,” about sex during a bout of impotence; and “Totems and Taboos,” in which Bob himself ruminates on the limitlessness of human limitation. In Life, space is compressed to the suffocating dimensions of a single mind, while single moments are expanded cubistically into entire landscapes. Bodies are vivisected and reassembled, and language is invaded, exploded, and reassembled. The Whole of Life sees Laederach composing a novel by taking it apart as he goes.

It’s hard to believe, but once upon a time Trent Reznor’s music wasn’t immediately associated with hopeless, charming nihilism. In a 1992 interview with Chaos Magazine, Reznor expressed his frustration over fans who were “turned off” by the abrasive sound of his second major release, Broken. “It may be pretentious,” he said, “but I wanted to make a record that the first time you hear it you don’t like it, but you might want to hear it again.” As an artist who with each subsequent release alienated a new set of fans, Reznor fulfilled his aspirations. Even as a total fanboy, I briefly turned against him after 2005’s With Teeth — an album I wouldn’t appreciate until much later. When I first heard it, it wasn’t the album I’d wanted him to write.
A few years ago, one of my writing mentors introduced this idea via “difficult reading.” What are the books, she wanted to know, that resist you? I’d battled the first few chapters of Moby-Dick for years until, one day, I sat down and enjoyed the novel’s every word. It wasn’t until my third time through Beloved that I didn’t hate it. Some books, she said, do what they can to fight you off. Often, these are the books we come to love most. At least I’ve learned, by now, that just because I can’t finish a book doesn’t mean I should throw it out. Sometimes it’s the reader who’s not holding up his end of the bargain.
To be honest, had I not volunteered to review Jürg Laederach’s recently-translated 1978 novel, The Whole of Life, it would’ve gone right back on my bookshelf. In his preface, translator Geoffrey C. Howes tries to warn the reader of what’s coming: “Laederach knows that language is only as reliable and stable as the minds that use it; in other words, it is unreliable and unstable.” Never before have I spent so long reading and re-reading a novel’s first page, trying to make sense of it. Already, I’d been tricked.
The Whole of Life is not one character’s Dickensian romp, nor a chorus of several interlocked lives meant to simulate any reality. It’s not even a chronological life. Instead, Laederach divides the novel into a “trilogy” of thematic elements. The first, “Job,” is a phantasmagoria of professions held by Bob Hecht, Bob, R. Hecht, Robert, Hecht Bob, That Hecht, and myriad other forms of the same idea of a man. Whether as a lounge pianist, a gardener, an ambiguous executive, or a counter of arc lamps along a highway (because, his boss admits, “Until now we’ve never known just how many arc lamps there are in this damned country”), Hecht is both victim and perpetrator in his own kafkaesque hell of financial desperation. A typical passage reads something like this: “The next dose of pension comes punctually. Stinking drunk, he opens the door to the enforcement officer. He’s mislaid his name and thinks he’s the first of the month in person. Scribbles an X on the receipt and stamps it with an imprint of his mouth next to that. This is interpreted in the office as a kiss, and they say nice things about him behind his crooked back.” At 133 pages, “Job” is just as absurd, incoherent, and terrifying as an actual job. As a reader, you can only hang on and take care of yourself.
The second section, “Wife,” gives us Hecht living in a country house with his young wife, furiously planting a garden as he battles a yearlong bout of impotence. Though a mere 15 pages, Laederach’s “Wife” is the only consistent, uninterrupted narrative in the novel, and is a welcome relief after its predecessor’s schizophrenia. That’s not to say that it’s easy to follow. Sexual impotence and inadequacy aren’t exactly wanting in metaphors, and it’s hard, so to speak, to know when to call a “huge, stiff firewood log pointing slantwise at the chimney” for the stove fuel that it is.
Fortunately, in the book’s third section, “Totems and Taboos” — though it returns to a fractured and circular, sometimes psychotic, narrative — Laederach mercifully forgoes the multiple Bobs and Hechts and “the bouillon cube(s) Robert” for a consistent “I,” whose voice, throughout these final meditative pages, we at least believe we can trust. Deriving its name from Freud’s 1913 collection of anthropological/psychoanalytic essays, “Totems and Taboos” pits Robert the beast against Robert the writer, who may have written the previous 156 pages — it’s hard to be sure. In fact it’s uncertainty itself that seems to haunt Hecht, and by extension Laederach. But if it’s uncertainty that haunts him it’s uncertainty he’s mastered. “Let’s believe half of everything,” he proposes. “I presume it means something indefinite, and emphatically so.”
Somehow, in these final pages, Laederach achieves an emotional undertow, and all of the novel’s frustrating incoherence — its hostile instability — work beautifully. “Laederach’s language breaks up and breaks down,” Howes tells us in his preface. “It repeats itself like music does, and it teases us into the idea that if language is to account for human perception, thought, and emotion, it has to leave behind the received realm of conventional facts and how they are made.” In The Whole of Life, there are no facts, and it’s possible, Laederach seems to say, that the same is true for the whole of life itself.
Incidentally, in that statement, Howes introduces another way to view this novel. The Whole of Life does repeat itself, and it does start to seem like music. Its structure, too, mirrors that of a romantic symphony: “Job” as allegro; “Wife” — with its slow, concentrated narrative — a brief adagio; and “Totems” as a return to manic allegro. All three recycle the same themes of power and powerlessness, first the struggle against unemployment, second impotence, and third — with his homegrown “writing business” — creative incompetence (or, for lack of a better term, writer’s block). Laederach’s befuddling prose may simply be musical notation; his surrealist anecdotes may be nothing more than trills and key changes that, like music, elicit unexpected, unexplained emotions you didn’t know you were carrying around inside of you.
Of course I know nothing of music theory. Perhaps this is only how I want to read The Whole of Life. Perhaps the idea of a novel at work in the unexplored parts of my head is more alluring than a trilogy of writer’s block. Perhaps Hecht’s mentioning a Romantic composer — “‘I love Schubert,’ I said without prompting” — is only a coincidence, a name caught in his overflow of information; and perhaps his interlocutor’s response — “‘Composing instead of writing,’ Hirsch confirmed — is equally coincidental. How are you supposed to be certain? Again, even Hecht dodges this: “I don’t know what ‘to be certain’ means. It might not mean anything. But that’s not so certain. . . . Perhaps it means that it has crossed someone’s mind, without one’s knowing him or ever having heard of him, a mind that he himself does not know.”
In the end, Hecht can only know one thing: “that he has once again written something down.” In the technical sense, that’s all The Whole of Life is — a thing written down. The same is true for Moby-Dick or Madame Bovary. Or The Cat in the Hat, for that matter. The most recent issue of People. A pamphlet that tells you what bus to take, or at least what bus you should’ve taken at the time the pamphlet was printed. All Laederach has done, maybe, is taken the short cut. He’s shown how much of ourselves we bring to what’s written down, and how much of a mirror a text really is. Here are some words, he says. All you have to do is show up, baggage in tow. - Patrick Nathan


Waiting for the publication of Jürg Laederach’s The Whole of Life, out now from Dalkey Archive Press, I revisited his very funny and hip 1990 Semitext(e) collection, 69 Ways to Play the Blues. Laederach is a one-time enfant terrible of Swiss literature (he writes “I’ll be called a young writer until I’m eighty,”) and his work epitomizes boomer cool. A devotee of Jazz and Downtown Music, Laederach made several trips to NYC during the 1980s. 69 Ways was written on the third trip.
Laederach is an avowed devotee of improvisational music:

69 Ways crackles with wry observations. On Bleecker Street: I am Bleecker Street, “that intersects and eschews any rude display of house numbers.”
On the view from Swiss cemeteries: “To a majority of the inhabitants of Switzerland, death, not Lake Geneva, brings about a marked improvement in their standard of living. Great pains are taken to see to it that graveyards have a “view” they are thus conceived with a strong sense of landscape and perspective.”
When authors get hungry: “All he could do was point a shaky finger at a sandwich and growl.”
The Whole of Life shares this offbeat cool. Framed as a sort of messy first-person, the plot follows a Swiss everyman, Bob Hecht, (endearingly called “My boy Bob Hecht” a la Charles Mingus: Beneath the Underdog) as he navigates mid-century industrial Europe.
The book is very funny and sprawling. The ethos of improvisation is most noticeable in Laederach’s pastichework. Different styles and references are co-opted and incorporated as a sort of self-analysis. In one section, a year of unhappy cohabitation is narrated as a boxing match. In another, he parses out the existential implications of deleting a Jewish character from the text. He has persistent dopplegangers, including a pair supposedly co-writing his memoir. The text falls into stage directions. And technical directions: “PAN F Perceptol min 68 F 10 ASA 25 DIN 15 Microphen min 20 C 4 ASA 64 DIN 19 or 68 F 5 650 ASA DIN 29 with reduction to 125 … The kind of prose we can expect in the future.” But through all this, he maintains a detached cool.
Attempting to integrate into the workforce, Hecht drives truck: “I drive straight ahead until evening…I stubbornly keep going, and then the motor starts chugging. I stop, get out of the car, walk toward a building, turn back to the car, turn on the headlights so that the battery will unperform on me, and walk toward the barracks, a hamburger bar with a sign advertising ketchup in tomato color, how original, almost a gag… It appears as though I’ve missed work today and spent the whole day searching straight ahead and mindnumbed… “But man,” says the guy serving me, “that driving straight ahead was your work, that’s what they hired you for!”
The novel seeps deadpan. And translator Geoffrey Howes does a great job catching its talky aspect, this very reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark. “Hardly had the tea party gathered up the biscuits, when the scrawny woman came up to the table and cried out: “You are my sweetie pie!””
First published in 1978, The Whole of Life, is one of those big messy books that feel rarer and rarer in 2014. Rather than a single plot or narrative piece, the novel works through different anxieties, chiefly concerning intimacy today. The novel has three sections (Job, Wife, Totems and Taboos), meant to reflect “The Whole of Life,” but these themes blend throughout the work. The pitfalls eventually describe Hecht’s difficulties with work and lovemaking. Hecht’s failures are instantly familiar and his dysfunction seems to reflect a dysfunctional society.
From the introduction: “The whole of “civilized” (twentieth-century, Western) life seems to based on those things that we well-developed primitives must worship (totems) or not mention (taboos) because they are too sacred for mere mortals like Bob and us. The totems include sex and work and their symbols (bed, bedsheets, typewriters, a house and its rooms), and the taboos include parts of the past, notably Bob’s “depth psychology” and the Shoah, and parts of the present, notably a bordello for women and the economic secret that the best-quality flesh is produced by cannibalism.”
The humor may camouflage some of the tenderness, but this is a singular work. Laederach lays his psychoanalysis bare. And some of the most compelling sections evoke a subliminal gray zone
“In the laundry room Ann had set up ten little men, in ten little cages all in a row. The cages stood on a table, and the table stood on a stone floor, which disappeared in the middle, at its lowest point into a drain. The arrangement of the little men was such that Ann could stand in front of it and put all ten fingers into the cages at the same time. Ann did this, and ten deep but tiny cries echoed through the laundry room, and ten jaws closed on her fingertips.”
Along with these works, Laederach notably co edited a Robet Walser anthology with William Gass, and was awarded both the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Italo Svevo Award for his many novels and articles. The Whole of Life is an arresting and important work from that oeuvre. - Joseph Houlihan




Jürg Laederach, 69 Ways to Play the Blues, Semiotext(e)/MIT Pres, 1990.


The phone refuses to ring. I sit here on 82nd Street; no, on 83rd; no, on 81st; I forget where I am. The phone refuses to ring, to tear me out of this enforced solitude, which I know only too well. This solitude that makes me sick and stirs me to tears, but surely not tears of compassion. A call is bound to come any minute now up from the Village and afford me the company I desperately desire. The phone isn’t ringing. The bell doesn’t work.
Written after the Swiss writer Jurg Laederach’s third trip to New York in the late 1980s, 69 Ways was hailed by award-winning author Walter Abish as a text predictive of “a Europe to come, when borders dissolve.” Like Alain-Robbe Grillet, Georges Perec, and the great Oulipo writers, Laederach constructs seamless narratives based on sly compositional strategies. The reader is only somewhat aware of the rules of the game. Transposed to America, Laederach’s texts, Abish argues, “function as a scanning device. Characters vanish, reappear. There is something relentless… Everything is transitory. No sentimentality. No clinging to the past. Everything is on the verge of being discarded. Everything is on the verge of dissolution. Everything resonates with imminent change.”
Short stories from Switzerland's architect of the noological enigma. "Jurg Laederach captures the spirit of the new Europe. Characters vanish, reappear. There is something relentless about the buildup... Everything is transitory. Everything is on the verge of being discarded. Everything resonates with an imminent change." - Walter Abish

Markus Werner - a Chaplinesque comedy of disintegration, never knowing if it’s coming or going: Zündel seems on the verge of falling to bits, as do his words, thoughts, wife, and world—will there be anything left, and anyone to hold the pieces?

 On the Edge


Markus Werner, On the Edge: A Novel, Haus Publishing, 2016.                   


A psychological drama with a masterful, pulse-quickening plot revolving around two seemingly very different men, who have more in common than they know.
Thomas Clarin is a divorce lawyer whose profession has fostered a deep and abiding distrust of marriage, preferring instead to “play the field.” Thomas Loos is a somber widower intensely mourning his wife’s death. With Clarin’s flirtatious, roving eye and Loos’s complete disenchantment with the world around him, it would seem these men had nothing in common. But after a fateful meeting in a crowded Swiss restaurant, the two strike up a conversation that unearths unnerving coincidences.
With brilliant ease, Werner’s meticulously rendered story begins quietly at first, then grabs its reader, refusing to let go. On the Edge, widely acclaimed by reviewers as a treasure of contemporary German literature, has been published in 15 different countries and has sold over 400,000 copies in Germany alone.


On the Edge captivates the reader from the very first line.—Pia Reinacher



[On the Edge] appears harmless—and then moves your world.—Susanne Schader




The miraculous ease with which this novel combines weighty philosophical issues with a gripping story is a rarity in contemporary German literature.—Marion Lühe





Markus Werner...belongs to the best German-language authors of his generation.—Marcel Reich-Ranicki


"A psychological drama with a masterful, pulse-quickening plot revolving around two seemingly very different men, who have more in common than they know.
Thomas Clarin is a divorce lawyer whose profession has fostered a deep and abiding distrust of marriage, preferring instead to "play the field." Thomas Loos is a somber widower intensely mourning his wife's death. With Clarin's flirtatious, roving eye and Loos's complete disenchantment with the world around him, it would seem these men had nothing in common. But after a fateful meeting in a crowded Swiss restaurant, the two strike up a conversation that unearths unnerving coincidences.
With brilliant ease, Werner's meticulously rendered story begins quietly at first, then grabs its reader, refusing to let go. On the Edge, widely acclaimed by reviewers as a treasure of contemporary German literature, has been published in 15 different countries, and has sold over 400,000 copies in Germany alone since its publication in 2004."

"On the Edge" is one of those books that makes one a fan of the author for life; sadly there are no more English translations of Markus Werner so far and as I cannot read German, I will try and track French or Italian translations of other books of the author. The first paragraph of the novel is of the kind that made me buy the book on the spot:
"Everything’s turning. And everything’s turning round him. It’s insane, but I’m even tempted to think that he’s sneaking around the house right now—with or without a dagger. Although he’s supposed to have left, and I’m just hearing crickets and the distant barking of dogs in the night."
After this dramatic introduction by the narrator - womanizer mid-thirties Swiss divorce lawyer Thomas Clarin - he starts recounting how he drove to his mountain villa for a long weekend to write a paper on Swiss divorce law history, only to to go to a nearby famed restaurant terrace and due to its being busy, sit at a table with an older, powerfully built 50's man, who at first ignores him after giving Clarin tacit permission to sit at his table. However after Clarin, outgoing, sociable, charming as his many conquests and "theory of dating" show, introduces himself, the older man starts paying attention and tells him his name is Loos as they start discussing stuff:
"Well, first, as I hinted, the discussion was all ‘God and the world,’ but then we gradually got more personal, more intimate, you could say. For example, he asked me about my life as a bachelor and then along the way about my love life.”
Loos is mourning his wife, dead one year ago after a bout with brain cancer and Clarin slowly falls under his spell:
“I met a man by chance at the Bellevue in Montagnola, a remarkable man, a little over fifty, a classical philologist. We got to be friends of a sort, talked with each other for two evenings long. His name was Loos, Thomas Loos, physically a bear of a man. He had come down here, as he gradually revealed, to commemorate his wife, his dead Bettina, whom he revered like a saint—it came across as crazy to me. He was unquestionably disturbed, from time to time almost unbalanced—then completely normal again and impressively sharp-minded, especially when it came to proving how awful the present age is, how unbearable the world—the only thing he valued was his wife, his happy marriage."
While the first part with its sort of "angels on the pinhead" discussion read like the ruminations of privileged white males from prosperous countries who never felt real deprivation and I started thinking "meh, these guys should have been born in a poor country and see if they would have their smug talk then...", slowly the novel started going into the past of both Clarin and Loos and then it accelerated to an even higher level, by the last third becoming just a masterpiece of misdirection and twists and turns.
At the end, one realizes On the Edge is really astounding with a last third that completely turns things on their head, makes rereading the novel a must as well as makes one marvel at the little touches you do not see the first time but which get a lot of significance once you know what's really what, not to speak of the control of the author as the reveals and storyline go.
Overall, On the Edge is a top 25 book of mine for 2013 (as the US edition has just been published in February by the NY Review of Books) and a novel I expect to reread quite a few times as times go by. - Liviu Suciu


On the Edge is narrated by Thomas Clarin, a lawyer in his mid-thirties spending a long Whitsun-weekend in the vacation house in the Tessin that he's a part-owner of. A determinedly confirmed bachelor, Clarin plans to finish his work on a paper on the history of Swiss divorce law, but the opening pages already reveal he was unsuccessful, sidetracked and now, after the fact, still entirely preöccupied with a man he met over the weekend: "Everything is spinning. And everything is turning around him", the novel opens. After this initial tease -- he doesn't let on why the experiences of the weekend so affected him -- Clarin's account circles back to the beginnings, and relates what happened, chronologically.
       After arriving and settling in for the weekend, Clarin had headed into nearby Montagnola for dinner. He found all the tables at favoured Hotel Bellevue/Bellavista occupied, but seeing one diner alone at a table for four asked to join him. The man is Loos, and while he initially barely acknowledges Clarin, the sociable Clarin eventually manages to engage him in conversation -- and the two go on to converse (and drink) deep into not just one but two nights.
       If Clarin is a confirmed bachelor whose philosophy is to dump them as soon as any woman threatens to become clingy and might possibly imagine something of a future, Loos seems almost the opposite. Wearing not one but two wedding rings on his ring finger, Clarin assumes he must be a widower, and Loos eventually tells his sad story, about the wife he loved deeply, Bettina, who survived a brain tumor but then died here exactly a year ago. It takes a while for the whole story to come out -- Clarin suspecting, along the way, both suicide and murder as possible explanations for the wife's death -- but Loos shares it eventually.
       Clarin has his own history here from the year before, a fling with a married woman, Valerie, who stayed at the same place, and he relates that episode to Loos. The two women might even have crossed paths, he imagines .....
       The two men reflect on women and relationships -- their own, and others'. Clarin doesn't feel much guilt about sleeping with married women, while Loos claims he never considered having an affair, his wife; "gave him and was his everything", so he had no reason to look elsewhere. But he is curious about the kind of woman this Valerie was .....
       The novel focuses on Clarin and Loos' interaction -- mainly their conversation, though since the account is presented from Clarin's perspective, his observations and commentary accompany, and color, the account of the discussions. With the break-up of marriages his professional area of expertise, Clarin tends to hold what might be considered a cynical view; he can barely imagine a lasting, close bond -- and, in his private life, does pretty much anything he can do to avoid it. Loos seems to open his eyes a bit to another perspective -- hopelessly romantic, arguably. Even in considering the story of another man that Clarin brings up as an example, Loos interprets the evidence differently -- and likely correctly, Clarin has to admit to himself. And ultimately Clarin is forced to confront the costs of how he acts -- having no problem flirting with someone Valerie introduces as her friend pretty much before Valerie's back is even turned, for example ... -- especially on the others who are affected by his actions.
       Where this is going isn't exactly a big surprise, and the novel works -- or doesn't -- off the sustained but subtle tension between the two men. Their different attitudes towards relationships, and their very different personal experiences -- with the older Loos clearly still hurting from a deep loss -- are laid out in civilized discussion; they drink a fair amount, but stay controlled and even largely unemotional. Yet even as it is nearly all talk, it isn't entirely. Werner handles that -- bubbling underneath -- quite well, but it's not entirely convincing. As with the coïncidence bringing the two men together in the first place, it all doesn't feel entirely plausible -- just a bit too artificial and forced.
       Still, Werner's dialogue, and Clarin's limited introspection (particularly dense as to the loss Loos is masking), make for a reasonably gripping read -- even if the cold Clarin's rather extreme personal philosophy and behavior is quite off-putting. - M.A.Orthofer

http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/suisse/wernerm3.htm


“I’m talking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred. Then comes the hour of professional or non-professional counselors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a last few sparks, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.”


On the Edge, a novel from German author Markus Werner  is told by 35 year-old bachelor, Clarin. He’s travelled to his small vacation home in Agra with the plan to work on an article for a professional law journal. The subject is “marriage law,” and Clarin has a self-confessed interest in the subject–especially from the historical perspective. Clarin, who in his work has seen the very worst of human nature, has very definite ideas about marriage, but then again as a divorce lawyer, he probably can’t escape an attitude that’s squarely against the institution of marriage. Stopping at the Hotel Bellevue, the place Clarin contemplated exactly how to dump his mistress Valerie with the least trauma to himself, he meets a man in his 50s named Loos, and there’s something about the man–some elusive quality that he finds intriguingMost people you can classify in a basic way after fifteen minutes, even if they don’t say a word; you can at least rank them as sympathetic or unsympathetic. But with him I couldn’t determine even this much. I only knew that he interested me. He made me think of Valerie, her opaqueness, which fascinated me at the beginning, but ended up putting me off.
Over a meal, the two men strike up a conversation with Clarin working hard at first to engage his moody dinner companion in conversation. Eventually Clarin learns that Loos has lost his wife, and the subjects of marriage and divorce emerge:
“…it must be very disillusioning for you to be constantly confronted with divorce cases. Doesn’t it tempt you to regard marriage as impracticable?”
Tempt, I said, wasn’t the word; the right one was convince. I was positively compelled by the constant torment I saw couples in to regard marriage as a mistake, or at least a simple overburdening of human nature, which seems too wayward to allow itself to be permanently tamed or to be able to accept the few rules that might make marriage possible, if they were followed. It defied all description, I said, what couples did to each other once they got divorced, whether by continuing to act the same way they acted during the marriage or by denigrating their former happiness. But the craziest thing was that people couldn’t keep from marrying, despite the fact that one of every two marriages already ended in divorce, and it was even crazier that more than twenty percent of divorced couples get remarried.
Loos who had listened so attentively that I would gladly have gone into more detail, interrupted me  and said, “You’re a bachelor, then.”
That passage occurs very early in the novel, and it’s at this point, I knew I was in for a grand read. There was something so intriguing about the set-up. Here are these two very different men at different phases of their lives–one, melancholy and missing the love of his life, a much cherished wife, and the other, a man who will not contemplate marriage as he sees it as largely an impossible institution that asks too much of the average human nature. Put these two men in the same table, and lively discussions will ensue, and that’s exactly what happens.
“For me it was home.” I tried to catch his eye, but he was looking across the valley. “What was?” I asked. “Marriage,” he said. “Was?” He nodded. “Are you widowed?” He drank. “You know,” he said, “I’m not unfamiliar with your statistics. I even know that there are two million dust mites rioting in every marriage bed, and I’ve learned from an even more disturbing study that after six years of marriage German couples speak to each other an average of nine minutes a day, and Americans four point two.”
“Exactly, exactly,” I said.
“And now I ask you,” he continued,”whether this finding permits conclusions about human nature or perhaps not rather about the nightly TV ritual, among other things.”
“Both presumably,” I said, “for if we accept that couples’ increasing reticence depends on increasing TV consumption, the question remains why the TV screen is preferred to an hour of conversation. It isn’t true–I hear this as a lawyer–that people don’t talk because they’re watching television. No, people talk television because there’s nothing more to talk about, at least nothing new or interesting. ‘It’s gone dead’–that’s the expression I hear most often; and from that I conclude that human nature craves diversion and colour, and can’t really get used to habit.”
“You’re all too right to be right,” Loos said, “and, as I said, my experience was different. Your health!”
The men meet twice, and each seems to be intrigued with the other. While they don’t set out to change the other’s opinion, nonetheless they are both prepared to argue their cases and that means the sharing of experiences. Loos, a teacher of “dead languages” is disillusioned and uncomfortable with modern life, but he’s a believer in love and marriage. He appears to be at the hotel for sentimental reasons–his wife was a patient at a local health spa after recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. A great deal of the discussion spins around the question of why some marriage partners appear to need novelty or change, while for others, deep-rooted routines are cherished. This isn’t exactly an unanswerable question since it addresses the differences between some natures vs others, belief systems, opportunity etc. (just to cover a few reasons), but nonetheless there is no one definitive answer: some people probably should do the world a favour and never marry or produce children if they are more suited to bachelor life. This idea certainly emerges through the conversations between Loos and Clarin; they are very different types of men, and while Clarin loves lightly and moves on, Loos does not.
He asked how it happened that people sat happily in front of the TV, evening after evening, craving the same thing over and over, their series for example, their quiz shows and so forth, whose popularity obviously consisted in their constant and unremitting repetition of the familiar. How did it happen that hundreds of thousands of people were fixated on a moderator’s or talkshow host’s moustache and that a howl would sweep through the nation when he suddenly appeared without it? How could it be explained that the desire for the most inane uniformity was felt only in front of the television screen and not in the rest of everyday married life? But no sooner did people get up from their chairs than they started thinking about divorce, just because their partners were brushing their teeth and gargling the same way they did the day before. “What Mr Clarin, is our nature really after?”
I’m adding these rather long quotes to give a sense of the novel. A great deal of the plot is composed of these encounters between the two men and the discussions they have, but I also want to convey the philosophical nature of the content. There were many points at which I put the book down and mulled over my own opinions as if I were at silent third at the discussions between Loos and Clarin. Of course, apart from these lively debates, there’s a story, a love affair in all of its various stages: the initial throes of passion all the way to boredom and the desire to escape told by Clarin, and it’s this tale that forms the mystery at the heart of the tale. I really enjoyed the book–not just for its two main characters who are perfectly drawn opposites–one man who appears to be the marrying type, and the other a permanent bachelor, but also for its rather bleak look at marriage and the questions raised about its sustainability given the mercurial aspects of human nature, the inexplicable nature of attraction and the selfishness of desire. - swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/on-the-edge-by-markus-werner/



EVERYTHING’S TURNING. And everything’s turning round him. It’s insane, but I’m even tempted to think that he’s sneaking around the house right now – with or without a dagger. Although he’s supposed to have left, and I’m just hearing crickets and the distant barking of dogs in the night.
I was a bit surprised when I read that first paragraph as I hadn’t been expecting a thriller.  I was right and this paragraph reads entirely differently after completing the novel.  It declares its intentions quite shamelessly in the first sentence:  EVERYTHING’S TURNING.
The young lawyer, Clarin, decides to spend some time at his home in the Swiss Alps, where he meets Loos, an older man.  The two strike up  a  friendship during which they meet, eat, drink and discuss the pecularities of life.  Loos appears to be in mourning the loss of his wife, although it’s not clear at first whether this is through separation or death, while the hedonist Clarin is – shall we say – between conquests and a complete cynic with regard to matrimony.  His experience is based on his work in the divorce courts.
I’m taking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred.  Then comes the hour of porfessional or non-professional counsellors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a few last sparkes, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.
Loos’s philosophy is not aligned to Clarin’s, yet it is not diametrically opposed – that would be far too crass for the pages of this book.  He is, however, world-weary.  During the initial conversations, he doesn’t say much. Nonetheless and with hindsight (remember I now know the ending), he is also a controlling presence.  There are times when Clarin feels threatened by his brooding solidity.  It feels very much as though Loos is on the edge of losing his sanity and control.
But as the first paragraph shows, that’s Clarin.  So at what point in a series of philosophical conversations about love and life do the tables turn and what’s the trigger?  I won’t reveal, if fact after one reading I can’t reveal, because this turning point happened much sooner than I realised.  Loos obviously puts two-and-two together much quicker than I did (unless, of course, he recognised Clarin even before that initial meeting – a point I think could be debated) and from that moment on he is the cat to Clarin’s mouse.
I suspect I’d enjoy this novel much more second time around.  It is, in effect, simply a series of internal monologues and conversations between two blokes.  Quite dry, a bit dull in places.  At times I didn’t think I’d get to the end of its 120 pages.  Then the undercurrents began to pull …. and now, I’m looking forward to a reread, to pinpoint those critical moments, to admire the authorly control all the more.  Who would have guessed?  Here comes that first sentence again.  EVERYTHING’S TURNING. - lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/on-the-edge-markus-werner/



Markus Werner, Zündel’s Exit. Trans. by Michael Hofmann, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.

Scrounged from his notebooks and hearsay, this is the story of a schoolteacher named Konrad Zündel: a philosopher, a wanna-be writer; scattered, self-conscious, glum, anxious, unlucky, discontent . . . At the end of his rope, he decides to flee his workaday life at all costs, only to find escape always a little beyond his reach. First his tooth falls out in the sight of other travelers, then he finds a severed finger in a restroom on a train. In fact, Zündel seems on the verge of falling to bits, as do his words, thoughts, wife, and world—will there be anything left, and anyone to hold the pieces? Zündel’s Exit is a Chaplinesque comedy of disintegration, never knowing if it’s coming or going.


Originally published in German, the straight-faced comedy Zündel's Exit follows the wanderings of Konrad Zündel, a thirty-three-year-old amateur philosopher who leaves his wife for a three-week bender in Italy. On his drunken ramble, the contemplative and quotable hero blunders into a hash of misfortunes, most of them preventable, in a humiliating study of high-mindedness about desperately low subjects. This was the debut of the distinguished Swiss novelist Markus Werner, and the book now arrives in English for the first time thanks to translator Michael Hofmann.
Zündel's mortifying jaunt opens with mystery and confusion. Zündel loses an incisor, has his pocket picked, and discovers a severed finger (not his own) on the floor of the train to Milan. Luckily, none of this affects his itinerary, which is random and driven by sheer ennui. "I want to be able to sit on a park bench," Zündel declares, "and say: You know, I really couldn't care less." Despite this professed indifference to bad luck, personal anguish fills his voyage with steadily worse accidents. In Genoa Zündel drinks his way through a series of waterfront bars, ineffectually visits a prostitute, then gets cheated trying to purchase a black-market revolver ... but not before reaffirming his "commitment to a total apathy," as he puts it, "without language and without compromise." That's to say, Zündel doesn't give a damn without even wanting to say he doesn't give a damn -- a highly principled unconcern. Who knew not caring about anything had to be so conscientious?
In fact, Zündel gives enough of a damn to whine about nearly every misstep on his journey, spouting puffs of softcore philosophy that form the high points of this novella.
Everything is hostile, everything that happens to me exceeds my capacity to endure it. Why does God have to send me a finger? And take my tooth. Sooner or later, everyone feels unviable. Humanity is assembled from partially reformed bed-wetters who never quite shake the feeling of existential displacement.
Bed-wetting, and urination more generally, comprise a major motif of  Zündel's contemplations. Bodily secretions -- lowest of the low subjects -- are this thinker's theory and practice:
In the little bay of San Michele he sat down on a stone bench, smoked and looked out at the sea. ... [He] suddenly couldn't remember if a human being had four, five, six or seven senses, thought that was a disgrace, but perfectly symptomatic of this cerebral culture; thought this, thought that, jumped up and widdled spitefully into the sea.
Philosophizing and peeing. Some vacation. Then again, that's lively for a man committed to total apathy.
As the bender proceeds, Zündel's reflections grow increasingly vile: "Why are there so many terms ... for diarrhea, and so few for constipation?... What is visibly and olfactorily evident is talked to death, but what is discreet and not apparent elicits from us a mute respect." Cleaning up some vomit, he ponders: "What to make of the fact that almost everything that comes from within us smells bad?" A confirmed pessimist -- "My damned brain sniffs a dungheap behind every paradise" -- Zündel thrives on morose aperçus and slogans: "Beware of fraternizing with reality," "Love is nothing but chronic anxiety punctuated by occasional spasms of pleasure." And finally:
Everyone is a more or less elegant, more or less resourceful escapologist, master of disguise and self-justifier, who knows how to lend dignity to his meanest steps. Every word is a coughed-up bogie. Every sentence a slithery pretext. Skullduggery as a basic form of human existence. Dishonesty as second nature and principle of form. So we all lie and cheat our way from one falsehood to the next, from self-deception to self-deception, and in the end every death bed contains nothing but a stinking, slimy, loathsome bunch of deceit.
These lugubrious analyses, meant to reveal character rather than be taken at face value, reflect the nature of the comedy in Zündel's Exit: the protagonist's overreactions to misfortune make him ridiculous. This is comedy in the traditional sense invoked by the degrading tribulations of the hero; the trials that subject him to ridicule. Comedy in this sense need not be a genre dominated by verbal humor. Not that the book is entirely humorless. In one place the narrator meets Zündel and wryly observes:
Zündel stayed until four in the morning. He talked a lot of stuff... He expressed himself vaguely about holiday plans. He spoke for a long time about his job, but when I asked him why he didn't give up teaching if it left him feeling so hollow and misshapen, he replied that having to answer questions was the opposite of contentment.
On a train, Zündel tries to pick up a girl with the awkward line, "Miss, do you think our trousers might be related?" Later,
...he [Zündel] lay in the bathtub, not singing. He spoke: Ladies and gentlemen, singing in the bath is a cliché... [but] I think the liberation of women will be a good thing for you men as well! -- Here's how! exclaimed Zündel, and let slip a resounding fart.
These humorous touches aside, the writing is mostly straight. Its comedy derives from a relentless mocking of gloomy Zündel, coupled with an emphasis on low characters, settings, and subjects. In the end Zündel comes to perceive himself as ridiculous:
What now? he asked... In the first place, I'd like to get so far as to be able to see myself as negligible, as the little cosmic pea I really am. I want to be able to giggle about my existential earnestness and pampering of self. I'd like to be able to see myself retrospectively, as the banal prequel to a rotting corpse. And secondly, I wouldn't mind writing a little novel...
The "giggle" here is a scornful one. Much more usually, people giggle at what's funny. If something's off-balance in the comedy of Zündel's Exit, this is it. There's far too much of the laughter of derision, and not nearly enough of the priceless laughter induced by humor. - Will George

Zündel's Exit is narrated by a friend of the eponymous Konrad Zündel, Pastor Viktor Busch, piecing together Zündel's final summer from Zündel's notebooks as well as his personal knowledge.
       Konrad Zündel, born 1949, is a Swiss school teacher in his early thirties who has been married to Magda for several years. The story opens with him in Ancona, ready to set out on the ferry for Greece -- he and his wife are spending some time apart, vacationing separately ("It was our decision -- and we came to it jointly", Magda reminds him) -- but already here Zündel is literally falling apart. He loses a "pin-tooth (or first broad incisor)" -- it simply falls out -- and he refuses to continue his trip in this gap-toothed state, making an about-face and heading straight back home.
       He wonders already what life-changing events he has sacrificed by abandoning his trip ("Maybe I would have drowned in Greece ? Or fallen under a bus ?") and believes that in hurrying back home:
Whereas now, everything will remain as before.
       Of course, it turns out that that's not nearly the case.
       The novel opens with a lot evoking a sense of foreboding: the opening scene involves a young boy vomiting, there's that tooth dropping out, and on the train-ride back home Zündel not only loses his cash to a pickpocket but finds a finger -- just a finger, but definitely human -- on the bathroom floor. It's only after these scenes that Viktor Busch steps forth, announcing himself as the shaper of this book, a shift from his omnisciently-narrated beginning. He explains how he has the information that allows him to present Zündel's perspective (and thoughts) in these scenes and this story -- he has Zündel's notebooks, etc. -- but of course it makes clear that his is the hand shaping the story, picking and choosing what episodes to relate, and in what order. With the foreboding beginning he offers, Busch certainly is setting the stage very clearly.
       When Zündel returns home so much earlier than expected from his aborted vacation it rattles his wife, who seemed to be looking forward to some time by herself. Or, with the building super then cruelly suggesting to Zündel that Magda had not spent the past few days alone, perhaps she moved much further on than he could have imagined ..... In any case, Magda quickly makes some space for herself, taking off to visit a friend and leaving Zündel to his own devices -- not a great place to leave him.
       If his spiral of decline was only suggested in physical and financial loss, it soon enough becomes a full-blown disintegration. Mulling matters over, he does come up with one idea -- to buy a revolver (yes, with the ambition of using it) -- which leads him back to Italy, and, of course, further misadventure.
       Busch notes that both he and Zündel assume a role of: "habitual spectator and commentator". Zündel does try to act, but these things tend to go rather wrong -- beautifully illustrated when he figures out where he's being led after picking up a prostitute. Readers don't worry too much about his buying and using the gun, because it's pretty obvious how that's going to turn out, and much of the appeal of the story is in following Zündel's bumbling and his reaction to the way his life seems to be falling apart.
       The teacher seems a bit young to be going through such an intense mid-life crisis, but then there's more to it than that. He bends Busch's ear deep into a night, but on the whole he's isolated and left to his own thoughts -- and even he has to admit:
     I'm so fed up with these thoughts, I wish I had a calmer brain.
       School starts in early August in Switzerland already, and Zündel at least goes through the motions of doing his job when it does, but by that time he's pretty much lost it. His exit is only a matter of time.
       There's a nice dry wit to how Werner captures and presents Zündel and his thoughts and ramblings, but the story feels a bit thin -- an excuse to present elements of a character- (and process-of-disintegration-)portrait without offering quite enough of a full picture of the man and the circumstances that drive him over the edge. A few biographical insights are offered -- including some detail about Zündel's father, who abandoned his mother after he got her pregnant -- but much of this, including especially his marriage, isn't adequately fleshed out or revealed. Perhaps it's appropriate, as Zündel's exit is as mysterious as his entrance, but it leaves the book feeling like the product of a writer enamored of a character and type, and specific aspects of that character -- the invention 'Zündel' -- and then struggling a bit to shape a story to fit him.  - M.A.Orthofer



Markus Werner, On the Edge, Trans. by Robert E Goodwin. Haus Pub., 2012.

A psychological drama with a masterful, pulse-quickening plot revolving around two seemingly very different men, who have more in common than they know.
Thomas Clarin is a divorce lawyer whose profession has fostered a deep and abiding distrust of marriage, preferring instead to “play the field.” Thomas Loos is a somber widower intensely mourning his wife’s death. With Clarin’s flirtatious, roving eye and Loos’s complete disenchantment with the world around him, it would seem these men had nothing in common. But after a fateful meeting in a crowded Swiss restaurant, the two strike up a conversation that unearths unnerving coincidences.
With brilliant ease, Werner’s meticulously rendered story begins quietly at first, then grabs its reader, refusing to let go. On the Edge, widely acclaimed by reviewers as a treasure of contemporary German literature, has been published in 15 different countries and has sold over 400,000 copies in Germany alone.

When the cynical divorce lawyer Thomas Clarin finds himself at a table on the terrace of the Bellavista Hotel beside Thomas Loos, an eccentric, ageing philologist, they strike up an unlikely conversation. Soon Clarin's questions tease out stories from Loos' past, and as both men slowly reveal more of themselves they are forced to question their opinions on love and life. The men are opposites; they intrigue and repel each other. But as the mystery of Loos' past deepens, we begin it wonder if all as it seems.

On the Edge captivates the reader from the very first line.—Pia Reinacher, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

[On the Edge] appears harmless—and then moves your world.—Susanne Schader, Die Presse

The miraculous ease with which this novel combines weighty philosophical issues with a gripping story is a rarity in contemporary German literature.—Marion Lühe, Rheinischer Merkur

Markus Werner…belongs to the best German-language authors of his generation.—Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Der Spiegel

"A psychological drama with a masterful, pulse-quickening plot revolving around two seemingly very different men, who have more in common than they know.
 Thomas Clarin is a divorce lawyer whose profession has fostered a deep and abiding distrust of marriage, preferring instead to "play the field." Thomas Loos is a somber widower intensely mourning his wife's death. With Clarin's flirtatious, roving eye and Loos's complete disenchantment with the world around him, it would seem these men had nothing in common. But after a fateful meeting in a crowded Swiss restaurant, the two strike up a conversation that unearths unnerving coincidences.
With brilliant ease, Werner's meticulously rendered story begins quietly at first, then grabs its reader, refusing to let go. On the Edge, widely acclaimed by reviewers as a treasure of contemporary German literature, has been published in 15 different countries, and has sold over 400,000 copies in Germany alone since its publication in 2004."


"On the Edge" is one of those books that makes one a fan of the author for life; sadly there are no more English translations of Markus Werner so far and as I cannot read German, I will try and track French or Italian translations of other books of the author. The first paragraph of the novel is of the kind that made me buy the book on the spot:
"Everything’s turning. And everything’s turning round him. It’s insane, but I’m even tempted to think that he’s sneaking around the house right now—with or without a dagger. Although he’s supposed to have left, and I’m just hearing crickets and the distant barking of dogs in the night."
After this dramatic introduction by the narrator - womanizer mid-thirties Swiss divorce lawyer Thomas Clarin - he starts recounting how he drove to his mountain villa for a long weekend to write a paper on Swiss divorce law history, only to to go to a nearby famed restaurant terrace and due to its being busy, sit at a table with an older, powerfully built 50's man, who at first ignores him after giving Clarin tacit permission to sit at his table. However after Clarin, outgoing, sociable, charming as his many conquests and "theory of dating" show, introduces himself, the older man starts paying attention and tells him his name is Loos as they start discussing stuff:
"Well, first, as I hinted, the discussion was all ‘God and the world,’ but then we gradually got more personal, more intimate, you could say. For example, he asked me about my life as a bachelor and then along the way about my love life.”
Loos is mourning his wife, dead one year ago after a bout with brain cancer and Clarin slowly falls under his spell:
“I met a man by chance at the Bellevue in Montagnola, a remarkable man, a little over fifty, a classical philologist. We got to be friends of a sort, talked with each other for two evenings long. His name was Loos, Thomas Loos, physically a bear of a man. He had come down here, as he gradually revealed, to commemorate his wife, his dead Bettina, whom he revered like a saint—it came across as crazy to me. He was unquestionably disturbed, from time to time almost unbalanced—then completely normal again and impressively sharp-minded, especially when it came to proving how awful the present age is, how unbearable the world—the only thing he valued was his wife, his happy marriage"
 
While the first part with its sort of "angels on the pinhead" discussion read like the ruminations of privileged white males from prosperous countries who never felt real deprivation and I started thinking "meh, these guys should have been born in a poor country and see if they would have their smug talk then...", slowly the novel started going into the past of both Clarin and Loos and then it accelerated to an even higher level, by the last third becoming just a masterpiece of misdirection and twists and turns.
At the end, one realizes On the Edge is really astounding with a last third that completely turns things on their head, makes rereading the novel a must as well as makes one marvel at the little touches you do not see the first time but which get a lot of significance once you know what's really what, not to speak of the control of the author as the reveals and storyline go.
Overall, On the Edge is a top 25 book of mine for 2013 (as the US edition has just been published in February by the NY Review of Books) and a novel I expect to reread quite a few times as times go by. - Liviu Suciu

EVERYTHING’S TURNING. And everything’s turning round him. It’s insane, but I’m even tempted to think that he’s sneaking around the house right now – with or without a dagger. Although he’s supposed to have left, and I’m just hearing crickets and the distant barking of dogs in the night.
I was a bit surprised when I read that first paragraph as I hadn’t been expecting a thriller.  I was right and this paragraph reads entirely differently after completing the novel.  It declares its intentions quite shamelessly in the first sentence:  EVERYTHING’S TURNING.
The young lawyer, Clarin, decides to spend some time at his home in the Swiss Alps, where he meets Loos, an older man.  The two strike up  a  friendship during which they meet, eat, drink and discuss the pecularities of life.  Loos appears to be in mourning the loss of his wife, although it’s not clear at first whether this is through separation or death, while the hedonist Clarin is – shall we say – between conquests and a complete cynic with regard to matrimony.  His experience is based on his work in the divorce courts.
I’m taking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred.  Then comes the hour of porfessional or non-professional counsellors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a few last sparkes, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.
Loos’s philosophy is not aligned to Clarin’s, yet it is not diametrically opposed – that would be far too crass for the pages of this book.  He is, however, world-weary.  During the initial conversations, he doesn’t say much. Nonetheless and with hindsight (remember I now know the ending), he is also a controlling presence.  There are times when Clarin feels threatened by his brooding solidity.  It feels very much as though Loos is on the edge of losing his sanity and control.
But as the first paragraph shows, that’s Clarin.  So at what point in a series of philosophical conversations about love and life do the tables turn and what’s the trigger?  I won’t reveal, if fact after one reading I can’t reveal, because this turning point happened much sooner than I realised.  Loos obviously puts two-and-two together much quicker than I did (unless, of course, he recognised Clarin even before that initial meeting – a point I think could be debated) and from that moment on he is the cat to Clarin’s mouse.
I suspect I’d enjoy this novel much more second time around.  It is, in effect, simply a series of internal monologues and conversations between two blokes.  Quite dry, a bit dull in places.  At times I didn’t think I’d get to the end of its 120 pages.  Then the undercurrents began to pull …. and now, I’m looking forward to a reread, to pinpoint those critical moments, to admire the authorly control all the more.  Who would have guessed?  Here comes that first sentence again.  EVERYTHING’S TURNING. - lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/



“I’m talking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred. Then comes the hour of professional or non-professional counselors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a last few sparks, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.”
On the Edge, a novel from German author Markus Werner  is told by 35 year-old bachelor, Clarin. He’s travelled to his small vacation home in Agra with the plan to work on an article for a professional law journal. The subject is “marriage law,” and Clarin has a self-confessed interest in the subject–especially from the historical perspective. Clarin, who in his work has seen the very worst of human nature, has very definite ideas about marriage, but then again as a divorce lawyer, he probably can’t escape an attitude that’s squarely against the institution of marriage. Stopping at the Hotel Bellevue, the place Clarin contemplated exactly how to dump his mistress Valerie with the least trauma to himself, he meets a man in his 50s named Loos, and there’s something about the man–some elusive quality that he finds intriguing
Most people you can classify in a basic way after fifteen minutes, even if they don’t say a word; you can at least rank them as sympathetic or unsympathetic. But with him I couldn’t determine even this much. I only knew that he interested me. He made me think of Valerie, her opaqueness, which fascinated me at the beginning, but ended up putting me off.
Over a meal, the two men strike up a conversation with Clarin working hard at first to engage his moody dinner companion in conversation. Eventually Clarin learns that Loos has lost his wife, and the subjects of marriage and divorce emerge:
“…it must be very disillusioning for you to be constantly confronted with divorce cases. Doesn’t it tempt you to regard marriage as impracticable?”
Tempt, I said, wasn’t the word; the right one was convince. I was positively compelled by the constant torment I saw couples in to regard marriage as a mistake, or at least a simple overburdening of human nature, which seems too wayward to allow itself to be permanently tamed or to be able to accept the few rules that might make marriage possible, if they were followed. It defied all description, I said, what couples did to each other once they got divorced, whether by continuing to act the same way they acted during the marriage or by denigrating their former happiness. But the craziest thing was that people couldn’t keep from marrying, despite the fact that one of every two marriages already ended in divorce, and it was even crazier that more than twenty percent of divorced couples get remarried.
Loos who had listened so attentively that I would gladly have gone into more detail, interrupted me  and said, “You’re a bachelor, then.”
That passage occurs very early in the novel, and it’s at this point, I knew I was in for a grand read. There was something so intriguing about the set-up. Here are these two very different men at different phases of their lives–one, melancholy and missing the love of his life, a much cherished wife, and the other, a man who will not contemplate marriage as he sees it as largely an impossible institution that asks too much of the average human nature. Put these two men in the same table, and lively discussions will ensue, and that’s exactly what happens.
“For me it was home.” I tried to catch his eye, but he was looking across the valley. “What was?” I asked. “Marriage,” he said. “Was?” He nodded. “Are you widowed?” He drank. “You know,” he said, “I’m not unfamiliar with your statistics. I even know that there are two million dust mites rioting in every marriage bed, and I’ve learned from an even more disturbing study that after six years of marriage German couples speak to each other an average of nine minutes a day, and Americans four point two.”
“Exactly, exactly,” I said.
“And now I ask you,” he continued,”whether this finding permits conclusions about human nature or perhaps not rather about the nightly TV ritual, among other things.”
“Both presumably,” I said, “for if we accept that couples’ increasing reticence depends on increasing TV consumption, the question remains why the TV screen is preferred to an hour of conversation. It isn’t true–I hear this as a lawyer–that people don’t talk because they’re watching television. No, people talk television because there’s nothing more to talk about, at least nothing new or interesting. ‘It’s gone dead’–that’s the expression I hear most often; and from that I conclude that human nature craves diversion and colour, and can’t really get used to habit.”
“You’re all too right to be right,” Loos said, “and, as I said, my experience was different. Your health!”
The men meet twice, and each seems to be intrigued with the other. While they don’t set out to change the other’s opinion, nonetheless they are both prepared to argue their cases and that means the sharing of experiences. Loos, a teacher of “dead languages“ is disillusioned and uncomfortable with modern life, but he’s a believer in love and marriage. He appears to be at the hotel for sentimental reasons–his wife was a patient at a local health spa after recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. A great deal of the discussion spins around the question of why some marriage partners appear to need novelty or change, while for others, deep-rooted routines are cherished. This isn’t exactly an unanswerable question since it addresses the differences between some natures vs others, belief systems, opportunity etc. (just to cover a few reasons), but nonetheless there is no one definitive answer: some people probably should do the world a favour and never marry or produce children if they are more suited to bachelor life. This idea certainly emerges through the conversations between Loos and Clarin; they are very different types of men, and while Clarin loves lightly and moves on, Loos does not.
He asked how it happened that people sat happily in front of the TV, evening after evening, craving the same thing over and over, their series for example, their quiz shows and so forth, whose popularity obviously consisted in their constant and unremitting repetition of the familiar. How did it happen that hundreds of thousands of people were fixated on a moderator’s or talkshow host’s moustache and that a howl would sweep through the nation when he suddenly appeared without it? How could it be explained that the desire for the most inane uniformity was felt only in front of the television screen and not in the rest of everyday married life? But no sooner did people get up from their chairs than they started thinking about divorce, just because their partners were brushing their teeth and gargling the same way they did the day before. “What Mr Clarin, is our nature really after?”
I’m adding these rather long quotes to give a sense of the novel. A great deal of the plot is composed of these encounters between the two men and the discussions they have, but I also want to convey the philosophical nature of the content. There were many points at which I put the book down and mulled over my own opinions as if I were at silent third at the discussions between Loos and Clarin. Of course, apart from these lively debates, there’s a story, a love affair in all of its various stages: the initial throes of passion all the way to boredom and the desire to escape told by Clarin, and it’s this tale that forms the mystery at the heart of the tale. I really enjoyed the book–not just for its two main characters who are perfectly drawn opposites–one man who appears to be the marrying type, and the other a permanent bachelor, but also for its rather bleak look at marriage and the questions raised about its sustainability given the mercurial aspects of human nature, the inexplicable nature of attraction and the selfishness of desire. - Guy Savage swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com


Markus Werner, Cold Shoulder, Translated by Michael Hofmann, Dalkey Archive Press, 2016.

Moritz Wenk is a moderately unsuccessful artist work- ing part-time as a commercial painter. He forms a harmonious if uncommitted couple with Judith, a dental hygienist. During a hot week in summer, Moritz reflects on his own position in life while mediating a marital dispute between two friends, hosting a dinner party for neighbors he hates, and turning thirty-eight. Told with Werner’s customary charm, spleen, and baroque artistry, Cold Shoulder is a comic portrait of an unexceptional modern man struggling to make the decisions that will bring his life meaning.

Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

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