A handful of titles remaining on my favourite books of 2016. Very early in the year I came across this work, one that for some strange reason didn’t make the Best Translated Book Award lists, a bleak, dark foggy tale from Marianne Fritz “The Weight of Things”. Here’s my review from February.
If there was a scene characteristic of my humble poetics, it would be a foggy atmosphere where a solitary man waked down a lonely road and smoke always got him thinking.
I evoked that characteristic for sequence evident in so many of my stories.
Enrique Vila-Matas ‘The Illogic of Kassel’
A thematic staple in many a literature, the fog, and Marianne Fritz uses the same image in her only translated work, “The Weight of Things”;
Ever since stepping into Ward 66, Wilhelm’s brain cells seemed veiled in a thick waft of fog, so that he could make out his thoughts only vaguely, and he had to proceed slowly and carefully, feeling them out, to be able to tell one from another at all. He resolved to restrict his thoughts to a level appropriate to the circumstances, to concentrate his energies, like a chauffeur driving in the fog who has to focus his attention on the oncoming cars: on seeing them for what they are, on not drifting too near them, on recognizing trees in the roadside shadows, concrete dividers in the spectral darkness, on knowing the median isn’t just a harmless fringe, to grasping, above all, that what surrounds him is real space, not some sort of vacuum, as the fog would prefer him to think – to the extent that a fog prefers anything – and to understanding that this material world is more resilient than he, so that failing to respect it, approaching it with arrogant recklessness, incautious stubbornness, or dogmatic inflexibility, would be extremely dangerous.
Very much like Wilhelm, you need to approach this book slowly and carefully, feel it out, see it for what it is, be aware of the median…it’s not just a harmless fringe.
Marianne Fritz’s first novel, the winner of the Robert Walser Prize in 1978, has recently been translated and released as part of the “Dorothy Project”, a publishing project mainly by women that publishes two books simultaneously, two books that “draw upon different aesthetic traditions”, because their “interest in literature lies in its possibilities, its endless stylistic and formal variety.” And from the opening pages you know that this is gem discovered.
The opening seven pages condenses the period 1945- January 1963 and includes pregnancy, marriage, the post-war decline of humanity, and the Madonna. We have three main characters, Wilhelmine, Wilhelm (who are married) and Berta and we cut back and forth across the eighteen-year period;
In view of Wilhelmine’s inclination to demand fulfilment of every last verbal concession she’d wrung out of him, usually without warning, he might have done better to vow henceforth never to make his vows so hastily, and to leave himself more ways out.
Without a background in German the nuances in the character’s names, and the places names are somewhat lost, however the “Note on the Translation” at the start gave me a clue as to some of the secondary meanings, for example, Berta’s maiden name means fist (‘Faust’ which is also, of course, Goethe’s famous play), Wilhelm’s surname means scream or cry etc. And there are numerical references throughout too, a recurring “unlucky” 13, ward 66, Anniversaries and more, I am sure there are many hidden references to all of these numbers.
The title, “The Weight of Things” is the daily grind of being alive;
“When she’s asleep, you know, she’s not caught up in the world, so concerned with the surface of things. The stamping and molding hands of life, the rolling, pressing, and flattening fingers – the weight of things, life as such, it can’t hurt her so long as she’s asleep. It’s that simple, Sleep startles everything away. Everything and everyone.”
Our novel starts out as a simple domestic story and once the fog descends it loops around on time, with satire, post-World War Two recovery, complex character internalisation, and includes a startling revelation. As I do my best to avoid spoilers in my reviews you won’t know what the revelation is unless you read this work yourself, however it does mean I have to be brief with my comments on this book as the “spoiler” is key to a number of the time threads that run throughout this book.
The afterword by translator Adrian Nathan West, reveals the following about the complex world of Marianne Fritz and her work, this being the only work we will possibly see in English;
Indeed, her entire oeuvre works toward a vindication of the livers of the poor, mean and especially women, who were expelled from the dignified arenas of Austrian society in the first half of the twentieth century and crushed like roaches under the millstone of history.
There are many articles available about Marianne Fritz’s other works, the untranslatable “Whose Language You Don’t Understand”, a 3,392-page story set in 1914, not only the beginning of World War One but also a “period in which the traditional agrarian economy gave way to industrialisation, when those who had previously worked the land became a despised and neglected appendage to the modern capitalist state.” This was followed by a 7,000 page ten volume work reproduced directly from Fritz’s typescript, a work so complex the spacing, drawings, angles of the text making it impossible to typeset.
A wonderfully bleak, dark, foggy tale, set during a further period of human decline after the second world-war, with Biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah, Christ and the Madonna, this can be read as a straight forward tale, it can also be mulled over, steered through carefully, and is a work that demands a re-read from the moment you finish it. A worthy contender to make the Best Translated Book Award lists for 2016 and another wonderful addition to the world of Women in Translation.