Tuesday, 31 August 2010


Reading on into the second volume of Peter Weiss's vast and strange novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, my principal impression so far is of how loose and episodic the construction of the work appears to be. The forbidding slabs of text and the absence of paragraph breaks are not alleviated by the way in which memory, reflection, dream and commentary are interchanged within the narrative, so that the reader has to steer through the flow of words as if it were a tide, picking up the interconnected strands of association and taking navigational bearings from the rising blocks of thematic emphasis which dominate the horizon in shifting succession.

So far in Volume Two I've crossed three of these blocks: the first was the long introductory sequence devoted to an analysis of Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), in which the narrator seems to be draw an analogy between the situation of the people on the raft and the oppressed working class of 19th century Europe, but then begins to analyse the scene in terms of a personal shipwreck, a disillusionment and abandonment of hope. This shift is discussed by W.G. Sebald in his essay on Weiss as a "transfer" - I would even go so far as to use the psychoanalytical term "transference", as it does not seem out of place here. The reflections and musings on Géricault’s aesthetic intentions melt almost imperceptibly into a second block of narration centered on the narrator's political exile with Max Hodann in Paris. There are Walter Benjamin-like street scenes of the city during the years immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, and then gradually we enter a third block, which gives a vivid account of the narrator's mother's political exile in Sweden and her efforts to evade the clutches of the German secret police.

The writing is at times inspired, with a particularly memorable description of Stockholm during a blizzard:
Durch die schwebenden Flocken gingen sie die enge Straße entlang. Ab und zu erschallten Rufe von den Dächern, ein Posten hielt die Fußgänger auf, heruntergeschaufelter Schnee fiel in die Haufen am Gassenrand. Zwischen Schneewällen gingen sie hindurch, auf den Hafenkai zu, im milchigen Gestöber waren Kräne und die Rümpfe einiger großer Schiffe zu erkennen. Weit wird die Aussicht nicht reichen, sagte die Schwester, sie fuhren aber trotzdem im Fahrstuhl hinauf, das Verkehrsrondell an der Schleuse sank zurück, die Querbalken des Eisenturms glitten vorbei, zuerst waren unten noch Straßenbahnen, Automobile, Omnibusse, auf hohem Sockel ein Reiter mit vorgestreckter Hand zu sehn, dan verschoben such im Flimmern nur noch formlose Schatten. (p. 550)
Yet one has the sense that the narrative is constantly being eaten away by Weiss's need to engage in didactic pedagogy, with homilies drawn from contemporary Communist Party texts (mostly Swedish, one gathers) which follow the Soviet line of the time, casting Nazism as a result and product of Western capitalist greed and intrigue, and the Soviet Union as the only hope for the future not only of the working class but of the whole of mankind.

Somehow these political sections, with often stretch for pages, have a curiously desperate ring, and suggest that Weiss himself is not convinced by their content and message. This tension, which was already noticeable in the first volume of the novel, is becoming harder and harder to ignore as I continue to read.

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