Saturday, 4 September 2010

Resisters - 2

I've now reached the second half of volume 2 of Peter Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance, and Bertolt Brecht is now the main focus of attention. In Stockholm the book's young narrator is seeking employment with the great exiled German radical playwright and poet. The personality of Brecht is sketched out fairly clearly - his self-absorption, his freedom to engage in his literary work full-time while many of his assistants, like the narrator, have to work in factories during the daytime, his manner of behaving, his short temper.Weiss characterizes him somewhat ironically as a "factory owner" - the "factory" being Brecht's own numerous projects and productions, which include not only plays for the theatre but also large-scale theoretical works like an Encyclopedia of Nazism and a Problematics of Exile.

The narrator becomes involved in one of these projects, working as a lowly researcher for a new play Brecht wants to write about Engelbrekt, the leader of a 15th century peasant revolt in Sweden. Weiss devotes a large number of pages to giving an exhaustive account of this. In fact, it becomes another of the novel's "set pieces", like Heracles and the Pergamon frieze, or the paintings by Delacroix, Goya, Brueghel, Gericault and others. There is also a long discussion about Swedish politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weakness of Sweden's parliamentary democracy, and the significance of mineral ore for the country's industry, with particular reference to the period of the Second World War.

Interestingly, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 is discussed in some detail, with the characters, including Brecht, giving their various interpretations of it. Although it's sometimes difficult to extrapolate the author's point of view from that of the narrator and other figures in the book, Weiss appears to take a highly critical view of the Pact, seeing it as a major enigma and obstacle for the European left. At all events, the issue is hardly swept under the carpet, as might have been expected in a work by a less complex radical author. One of the characters, the Comintern official, political journalist and editor Jakob Rosner tries to compose a justification for the agreement, which he plans to circulate in his newspaper Ny Dag to likely subscribers in Stockholm:
He asked me to search the phonebook for Jewish names, and enter them in the register of people who were to be sent sample issues of the paper. He refused to believe that the Jacobssons, Danielssons and Rosengrens were of old-Swedish origin. Jakobsohn, Danielsohn and Rosenzweig, he said, shaking his head with its rumpled hair, and so the Lewins and Blumenbergs are also Christians in this country... (p. 664)
In a bitter conversation with Rosalinde Ossietzky, the narrator questions her "Marxist" argument that the cause of the impending world war is the conflict between the capitalist nations of the world. At the end of November 1939 the signs that an armed confrontation is about to break out between Finland and the Soviet Union leads the Sweden-based radicals (most of whom are in Sweden illegally)  to speculate on the outcome.

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