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