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?


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. -

“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

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.


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