Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Peter Weiss: Letters - 2

I’ve now finished reading the book* – it’s a fairly short work, and includes the text of 21 letters, with notes and bibliography. The letters themselves give a fascinating snapshot of the 24 year-old Weiss’s psychological, emotional and artistic situation in Alingsås, western Sweden, during the summer of 1941. In April of the same year, the Swedish poet Karin Boye, who also lived in Alingsås, and with whom Weiss may have had personal contact, committed suicide. It seems that this event drove him to seek psychoanalytic treatment, though it was some time before he could afford to undertake a proper analysis. In the letters there are references to an aborted analysis with a local doctor, Iwan Bratt, and a self-analysis conducted afterwards during a time when Weiss was still working as a darkroom technician in his father’s factory.

Henriette Itta Blumenthal, like several other of Weiss’s close friends during this period, was considerably older than him, and had also trained as an analyst. Unlike Weiss, she emigrated to the United States. Weiss’s letters to her bear the character of a personal confession, and reveal much about his troubled sense of personal, ethnic and national identity, his relation to his parents, his affairs with women, his attitude towards homosexuality, his increasingly political interpretation of the role of resistance in psychoanalysis, and many other themes which eventually became merged into his later literary works, especially the "Erzählung” Abschied von den Eltern (1960), and the novels Fluchtpunkt (1961) and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (1975-1981) There is also a good deal of detail about his activity and aspirations as a painter and visual artist, and the book gives an insight into his concept of “world theatre” (Welttheater) as a meeting-place of the personal and the public, which would later become important in his work for the stage and screen. The descriptions of life in a small Swedish town during wartime, with its gossip, its hostility to foreigners and its undisguised anti-Semitism, are sharply and vividly drawn.

In their notes, the editors of the volume have tried to be as precise, inclusive and informative as possible, and this is very welcome. Their introductory essay also serves as a useful summary of the rest of the text. One has the impression, however, that the editors are not quite at home in Swedish, and this is a pity, as the letters are written in a curious linguistic style that hovers somewhere between German and Swedish, occasionally producing some strange and subtle shifts, not all of which are literary, and which require some detective work on the part of the reader.  In one case when Weiss writes that he has been out with friends picking rosehips, and uses a “Germanized” form (Nippon) of the Swedish word nypon, the notes flag this as “Unklar: Es gibt eine Pfingstrose namens »Nippon Beauty«. Möglicherweise auch ein Übertragungsfehler.“ (p. 151) Where Weiss spells the name of the journal Månadstidningen in a mixture of German and Swedish which probably reflects his state of mind in exile, as "Monatstidningen", in one instance the notes go even further, and reproduce the title as Månatsdidningen (p.71). On a more general level, many readers could probably dispense with notes that inform them that Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter, or that Diego Rivera was a Mexican one.

But these are minor matters, and ones which it would perhaps not be hard to set right for a second edition. Readers who are familiar with Weiss's prose work, especially the Ästhetik, will find much of interest in this book as it provides documentary background material and in some cases a confirmation of certain themes and facts that are only hinted at in the prose fiction. It is also a highly enjoyable read, and a worthy addition to the volumes of Weiss's letters that have already been published (most recently his correspondence with Hermann Hesse and Siegfried Unseld, the late head of Suhrkamp.)

* Peter Weiss: Briefe an Henriette Itta Blumenthal, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin, 2011. 175pp.

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