Wednesday, 1 September 2010


In the second volume of Peter Weiss's long novel - I'm now in the section between pp. 553 and 627 - I notice a sudden change in the narrative technique. For one thing, the sense of "paragraph-lessness" is receding. There are more frequent breaks in the blocks of text, and one is now reading what are almost long but clearly demarcated paragraphs. For another, the specific locale - in this case Sweden and Stockholm - is being described and invoked in a much more concrete and realistic manner than was characteristic of the section devoted to Spain (the second half of volume one). One supposes that a reason for this may be that the author has a greater degree of immediate and long-term familiarity with the places he is describing, The need to insert chunks of art history and Greek mythology into the text seems for the present to have lost its urgency, and the story is developing in a manner that is almost that of traditional nineteenth century fiction - one almost could be reading a story or novel by Tolstoy. The characters converse, they eat and drink, they laugh, they are becoming almost human.

The analogy with Tolstoy also comes to mind in the fact that the characters now being developed and described are historical figures. This is a historical novel, after all. Just as in War and Peace Tolstoy introduces military figures and political leaders into the narrative, Weiss now brings in not only Max Hodann, but a number of other real-life people who worked as political activists in the exiled German Communist anti-Nazi resistance movement. We meet Charlotte Bischoff, who having fled the Third Reich is now in Sweden preparing to return to Germany in order to carry out undergound resistance work there. "Lindner" appears to be the German-Czech resistance worker Hertha Lindner, though from a historical point of view it isn't clear that she was in Sweden during 1939. Weiss now also introduces Rosalinde Ossietzky, daughter of the radical German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (1889-1938), who in Stockholm tells the narrator and Max Hodann about the torture and murder of her father by the Nazi authorities. She also recalls the actions of some pro-Nazi Norwegian cultural figures, including the novelist Knut Hamsun, who took part in an active campaign to discredit her father and to deny him the award of the Nobel Prize which he received in 1935.

It has to be said that Weiss succeeds in leading these new characters onto the stage quite naturally, without much ideological ballast - they act and talk like real people, and above all one can believe in them. It is only a pity that the author forgot (or perhaps decided not) to include explanatory notes on these figures, who will  probably be unfamiliar to many of his readers, even - or especially - in Germany. There the affinity to Tolstoy breaks down, for Tolstoy's historical characters were all well-known to his readership. However, with the advent of Wikipedia, it's not too hard to keep abreast of the historical and biographical background as one reads - this was hardly the situation of readers of this challenging novel three decades ago.

Although Sweden in 1939 is now a temporary home for many of the political activists being brought to life, most of them are there illegally. Weiss is scathing about the country's Aliens Act of 1938, which in a response to antisemitic protests (among others, by students at Lund and Upsala universities) virtually closed the door to Jewish refugees altogether. As is consistently the case throughout the whole of the Aesthetics, Weiss groups Jewish and Communist refugees together - for him the Holocaust has two elements, a racial one and a political one. Sometimes they overlap, but they are distinct, separate and of equal validity. The reader is left unaided to deal with this debatable historical construct.

Another problem is the account of the international political events of 1939 which led up to the outbreak of war. The account is heavily influenced by Stalinist versions of history, with the Baltic States, for example, being stigmatized as "semi-fascist" and standing in the way of a successful Soviet defence - part of an anti-Soviet conspiracy being cooked up by Great Britain, France and the United States. One feels that, although this Tolstoyan historical digression is put, somewhat unconvincingly, into the mouth of the youthful narrator, who is only in his teens, one can't help feeling that it would have been better if Weiss had left it out, for it leaves an unpleasant taste, even as fiction. The bewilderment of the narrator and his friends as the German-Soviet Credit Agreement of 1939 is signed is well-described, but again there need to be some notes or other signposts for the reader.

I'm now moving on into the closing section of the first part of volume two, in which the narrator visits the island of Lidingö near Stockholm where the Swedish sculptress Ninnan Santesson has put her home at the disposal of the German writer and dramatist Bertolt Brecht and his family. 

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