Sunday, 12 September 2010

A private story

I've now finished the third volume of the German-Swedish author Peter Weiss's long novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, and so have now read all 1787 pages of the 2005 Suhrkamp edition. It's a varied reading experience - something akin to a blend of fiction, documentary report, ideological tract, historical treatise and autobiographical reminiscence - and it's possible to see why if it were to be translated in its entirety, the book would probably have a limited readership, placing its author firmly in the category of a 1000 copy guy. Although the voice of the narrative is not directly Weiss's own, but that of the novel's youthful narrator, it's hard to swallow the illusion that the teenage chronicler and historian would in real life be capable of disgorging this stupendous volume of earnest, didactic oration.

On the other hand, the book does offer some unique insights into the history and psychology of the Germany of the immediate post World War 2 era. The sections in volume 3 that deal with the problem of why a country that was able during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to produce one of the most highly-evolved aesthetic cultures of Europe, and indeed of the world as a whole, proved at the same time to be an almost total failure in the art of state building and political endeavour, and ended by nearly destroying not only itself but much of the rest of the world as a well. Weiss appears to pin the blame on what he perceives to be an innate Germanic (not only German, for Sweden also comes in for a large dose of criticism) yearning for an ideal realm, a longing unaccompanied by any substantial practical ability that might have brought about its realization. The link between aesthetics and politics which forms the novel's principal thesis is only an abstract one - in practice, the link did not exist, and most of the writers, artists, filmmakers and composers who began by espousing the cause of a New Jerusalem built from Marxist revolutionism ultimately found themselves cast adrift in a murky sea of violence, war, totalitarianism and genocide.

Weiss extends his judgment to condemn not only Germany, but also most of Europe and America. The Soviet Union is seen as a deceptive friend and foe, which during the 1920s and 30s encouraged the aspirations and actions of radical idealists only to betray them, delivering them into the hands of their tormentors and destroyers. The parts of the novel which deal with this - such as the long passages of analysis and recrimination that precede the gory accounts of executions in the Nazi jails - are probably unlike anything else in postwar German literature, possessing the kind of clarity and frankness sought by W.G. Sebald in his book of essays On the Natural History of Destruction, but not found by him there.

The third volume stands apart from the other two by containing elements of a more conventional narrative kind. The long account of Charlotte Bischoff's voyage from Stockholm to Nazi-occupied Holland aboard a Swedish merchant vessel could be taken from a 1930s spy thriller, while the section describing the executions of German communists (including two of the novel's principal characters) in Plötzensee Prison have a lurid quality that is possibly at odds with the elevated style of much of the rest of the book. In the end, I found that the unyielding nature of the narrative technique, the unbroken yet breathless hammering of the syntax and diction, made it hard to be swept along by the flow of language and rhetoric as the author undoubtedly intended. By the last 100 pages or so there is a definite sense of exhaustion, with the clauses of the long sentences coming in shorter and shorter bursts - one literally feels that the narrator is almost at his last gasp.

Sebald called this a "genuinely catastrophic novel in which, with a shattering sense of system, Peter Weiss wrecked what he knew was the little life remaining to him", and it is hard not to concur with that judgment. For a work which aims to embrace the aspirations and sufferings of an entire generation, with only a few exceptions this is all too clearly a book of individual self-analysis and self-destruction. Perhaps, given the continued silence about the inner, intellectual reasons for the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany (a silence that persists not only in Germany itself but also in the rest of Europe), there was no other way in which Peter Weiss could write his fascinating, cataclysmic but ultimately private book.

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