Werner Kofler - "Art must destroy reality," he trumpets, yet, in the spirit of his "beloved Beckett," each failed attempt at the writing desk only drives the effort endlessly, angrily on
Werner Kofler, At the Writing Desk, Lauren K. Wolfe, Dalkey Archive Press, 2016.
Installed behind his desk with notebook, ashtray, whiskey, and "several typewriters of various calibers," Werner Kofler embarks on a tour not through space but through literature, and through his abortive attempts at producing a work he can call his own. "Art must destroy reality," he trumpets, yet, in the spirit of his "beloved Beckett," each failed attempt at the writing desk only drives the effort endlessly, angrily on. The first English translation of a central figure in Austrian fiction, At the Writing Desk is a battle cry against every cultural and literary status quo.
A collection of stories, as much essay as fiction, originally published in 1988, by the late Austrian novelist and polemicist.
“It’s out of powerlessness that I sit down to my desk to write and out of powerlessness that I get up and walk away again,” sighs one of Kofler’s narrators. Power is a constant preoccupation; while one narrator insists that “literature is a fight against crime,” others accede or are complicit. Born in 1947, Kofler raises searching, often unsubtle questions about Austria’s guilt in World War II and the Holocaust; the nation may have chosen forgetfulness—“You saw nothing!” as one brownshirt hollers at an old woman, emblematically—but Kofler, as if channeling Karl Kraus or Friedrich Dürrenmatt from previous generations, is there to hold the mirror up to its eyes. So it is that one embittered veteran of the war grumbles, well, sure, 6 million Jews may have died, but “what about the three and a half million German soldiers who set out to make a better future for themselves and wound up losing their lives, what about them?” That “better future” is a matter of debate. In the opening paired narratives, a mountain guide and the tourist he leads thrash over whether to keep the alpine country pristine or set down a reservoir and power plant in the middle of all that scenery. “Bullshit, this is bullshit, I want to call out but I can barely make a sound,” laments the visitor, just one of countless Austrians who, now as then, go along to get along. Kofler’s diction is unadorned and rough-edged, qualities which the translation straightforwardly captures; the only thing wanted is more thorough annotation to gloss such things as the symbolism of the kingfisher and what Kofler means by phrases such as “a Franconian nightmare,” though the existing notes are helpful in outlining matters such as the history of the neofascist politician Jörg Haider, “a self-nominated outpost-German.”
A welcome introduction to a writer little known to American readers. - Kirkus Reviews
At the Writing Desk is yet another variation on the popular Austrian writing-sport of bashing nation and literature establishment with bitter humor (and a good dose of moaning about going unrecognized and unappreciated while the undeserving are lionized). Mining especially the Austrian 1980s, Kofler has a good deal of material to work with, and while some of the concerns and personalities are decidedly local -- headline-stuff in those years, but largely just domestically -- translator Wolfe's endnotes at least help uninitiated readers understand who and what is being referred to.
At the Writing Desk begins not behind the writing desk but in the mountains, the narrator's opening words:
In front of me, the tour guide. He knows the way.
Guides -- human as well as written -- figure prominently throughout the book, with the writer/narrator taking on the role as well, guiding (often as not misleadingly, too) readers. There's some wordplay at work here too, as the German word for guide also has those other connotations: an art-guide is a Kunstführer, for example, and so, for example the narrator at one point writes:
I traveled into German history to experience something. This is the sentence, returned to the writing desk, with which I would begin my Report to the Academy for Comparative Museum Studies, I thought, following behind my Führer; no, no subtle innuendo here, I was literally following behind the curator, the Museum Führer, my guide
No subtle innuendo indeed -- by that point Kofler's has made his position, in an environment over which the dark shadow of the Führer and all he symbolized still hangs heavily, abundantly clear.
At the Writing Desk opens with a nice set of pieces, first a brief account from a narrator following an Alpine guide on a mountain climb (the peak: Großelend -- 'big misery'), the next then switching to the tour guide's narration, as he describes leading the tourist (pretty much right into the abyss: "Abyss is my cue", he notes ...). Only then do we find ourselves at the writing desk, the writer coming to the fore, admitting:
A tour guide in front of me ? A tourist standing before an abyss ? Where's this all headed ? With statements and gimmicks like these -- gimmicks ? What am I saying ? These are some shady tricks our author's got up his sleeve
But the author takes some pride in his shady tricks, too, showing them off where he can (and it's his book, so he can, all the time).
He is a frustrated author: frustrated by how underappreciated he is, by the ridiculous actors strutting on the national stage -- the political and cultural ones -- and by the endemic corruption of the capitalist-political leadership. He's also a disappointed, paranoid author:
For years now there's been a conspiracy against me, it's been objectively verified, a conspiracy of the so-called literary public -- no, it's bigger than that: it's a worldwide conspiracy, a worldwide literary ... no, a Weltliteratur conspiracy ! My books don't get translated. I've hardly had a letter in years. When the phone rings, it's only because there's been a misunderstanding, or it's regarding some triviality, or the line simply goes dead.
Critics and -- especially -- populist authors are bashed -- Patrick Süskind's worldwide mega-bestseller Perfume is a particular sorepoint, but even local would-be activist authors such as Peter Turrini get theirs. Looming largest, of course, is Thomas Bernhard, who can't be derided like the others: 'Pope Thomas Bernhard II' he styles himself at one point ("Or would I rather be Alfred Döblin or Albert Ehrenstein this time ?") -- or even sees himself connected to the master, (ever so briefly) imagining himself inhabiting his work:
Bernhard's narrator, wandering in the middle of the night somewhere between Burgau and Parschallen, found a cap ! And who's to say it wasn't me that lost it ? Nonsense.
The writer wants to write about experience:
I traveled to Germany to experience something. It's with this sentence, returned to my writing desk, that I'll have the chapter begin. But of course, before I can return, I'm going to have to leave.
His beginnings alternate between that and him sitting at his desk, at midnight, as it rains. The variations on this scene amusingly escalate: from the rain beating against the windows to beating against the desk itself to beating: "against the head that is bent over the writing desk". But he also frequently admits to the artifice of it all -- at one point breaking right into his rote beginning and recording in frustration:
It's midnight. Wrong, it isn't midnight at all, it's afternoon, a hot mid-afternoon in mid-April: writing desk, interior, day, the windows are open. -- It was, thus, a cold February night. I was hungry. No, that's a lousy beginning. No access here to anything original.
Kofler's novel is a mix of tirades and an attempt to fashion a fiction. We very much see and experience the writer at work -- at his writing desk, figuratively and literally (and, as the Museum Führer observes: "Show me the desk and I'll give you the man, as we say here in Germany"). At the Writing Desk is a Bernhardian reckoning and accounting -- with nation, history, the corruption of the German and Austrian political and literary establishments, among other things. Among the attacks are many personal ones (including a tirade against Kofler's early publisher Klaus Wagenbach), and much here is very local: Kofler writes as both in-the-know insider and as outsider, without quite achieving Bernhardian universality.
It's an intentionally mad and frayed book, a story of being unable to set down a story, returning again and again to that point of all beginning, at the writing desk. Intentionally Kofler refuses to make his work neat and orderly -- that too is part of the point.
There's a grandness to Kofler's raging, and considerable wit too; even without familiarity with much that he brings into his stories it's quite an enjoyable angry ride -- but it is also a very local (site- and era-specific) and personal book. - M.A.Orthofer
Werner Kofler (1947–2011) was born in Kärnten, Austria, and died in Vienna. He studied education before beginning his writing career, primarily focused upon novels and plays. He was awarded the Arno-Schmidt-Preis in 1996, as well as the Buch.Preis in 2004, among other honors.