The Nonessential: On Marianne Fritz



Marianne Fritz’s apartment in Vienna. From the volume Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation, edited by Klaus Kastberger and Helmut Neundlinger.

Marianne Fritz’s apartment in Vienna. Image from Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation, edited by Klaus Kastberger and Helmut Neundlinger.

In an interview published three months before his death, W. G. Sebald referred to his aversion to the systematic and to his faith in the haphazard: “If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.” Though my own aversion to structure is less an outgrowth of any faith in serendipity than a temperament both indolent and indecisive, rooting around has at times for me, too, yielded benefits that a single-minded approach to literature wouldn’t have afforded. And it is particularly fitting, in light of the quotation above, that I should have hit upon Marianne Fritz—whose novel The Weight of Things I have just translated—by following up on a footnote from Sebald’s posthumously published Across the Land and the Water, a selection of poems translated by Iain Galbraith.

In the late poem “In Alfermée,” named for a Swiss commune where Sebald twice visited the scholar Heinz Schafroth and where the ashes of the poet Günter Eich are scattered, the following two stanzas appear:

Threading sleep
letter by letter
comes a language
you do not understand

The exhausted eyes
of the writer the fingers
of one hand on the
keys of her machine

In the notes to the poem, Galbraith quotes Schafroth as saying that his conversations with Sebald would certainly have touched on Marianne Fritz, author of two prodigious novels totaling some ten thousand pages: Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose language you don’t understand) and Naturgemäß (Naturally, or, following the usage of several Bernhard translators, In the nature of things). Schafroth, one of the few critics to have addressed Fritz’s work, informed Galbraith, in a private communication, that it would not be “going too far” to call Fritz the writer in the poem.

Web searches on Fritz revealed surprisingly little. She wrote four published novels, three of which are out of print (Naturgemäß I and II, each consisting of five volumes, are still available on the Suhrkamp Web site for €256 and €298, respectively); she is the subject of one article in English, one in Spanish, and a handful of reviews, essays, and obituaries in German; and there is Fritzpunkt, a theater collective devoted to her work, whose Web site hosts a PDF version of the unfinished Naturgemäß III.

As a translator, I always have my eyes open for striking authors who are little known in English; as a reader, I often find something particularly alluring about outsiders. Much as I might admire Wallace Stevens or Henry James, there is something off-putting about the idea of the gentleman writer with his club dinners and harmless predilections. As Fritz’s compatriot Josef Winkler writes, recalling the favored authors of his youth,

And in those days, if a writer had not shattered himself against his own sentences and died while doing so, I could not believe a word of what he wrote. If I did not sense, when reading, that language lay in the balance, suspended, sentence by sentence, between life and death, then the book held no interest for me.

According to this criterion, Fritz easily passes muster. Born in modest circumstances in Styria in 1948, she studied clerical sciences before marrying the functionary and writer Wolfgang Fritz and moving to Vienna. At age thirty, she published her first novel, The Weight of Things, which was awarded the Robert Walser Prize. From then on, she devoted herself entirely to her writing. In 1979, she and her partner Otto Dünser moved to a small apartment in Vienna’s Seventh District, stripping it of virtually every modern convenience (her sole luxury was said to be a second typewriter, in case the first one failed her) and lining it from floor to ceiling with shelves packed with the books, file boxes, maps, and index cards essential to Fritz’s increasingly elaborate and dense work. She worked fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, oblivious to the date or the season, save for the occasional “philosophical pause for thought,” as Dünser described her infrequent outings. Though she would publish some eight thousand pages of writing between 1980 and 1998, when the second volume of Naturgemäß was released, she was hardly an advocate of the rushed approach César Aira describes as the “flight forward,” and edited her work scrupulously. “How would we ever get anywhere if we held onto everything?” Dünser quotes her as saying.

The Weight of Things is written in a jaunty, albeit acerbic German that presents few difficulties for the average reader. Her second novel, Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani (The child of violence and the stars of the Romani), which begins with a supple, lyrical prose bordering on poetry, soon dispenses with the rules governing German syntax in favor of a highly rhythmic, almost incantatory phrasing, rife with unwieldy neologisms, which left the few critics who dared to examine it perplexed. As a consequence, she was released by her publisher, Fischer; her third book, the 3,400-page Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst, was picked up by Suhrkamp, whose director, the legendary Siegfried Unseld, hoped to market Fritz as a “female Joyce.” The book was a minor scandal: her proofreader gave up a third of the way through, declaring it impossible to distinguish errors from the author’s own idiosyncratic orthography, and reviewers spoke openly of the point at which they’d abandoned reading it. Bemusement gave way to open hostility in the nineties, when Naturgemäß I appeared: in one of the scant reviews, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described it as a “Disneyland of Deconstruction,” a “provocation,” a game of Legos played with the detritus of the horrors of the twentieth century.

A manuscript page from Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose language you don’t understand). Image courtesy

Manuscript pages from Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose language you don’t understand). Image courtesy

Yet Fritz’s experimentation is neither idle nor random, and the rewards it harbors for patient readers are perhaps unique in world literature. In The Weight of Things, the sparseness of Fritz’s language reflects the oppressiveness of the commonplace in the modest lives of a family torn between obedience and rebellion. Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst sought to eliminate the nonessential, to shatter the strictures of grammar, which, according to Fritz, constituted the limits of thought. The German language, as the bedrock of the worldview of the German-speaking peoples, had been an essential actor in the horrors of the First and Second World Wars, impeding the development of independent consciousness on the part of the lower classes and subsuming them in a state that thrived on annihilation. For Fritz, the violence she records was inseparable from the cultural and historical background that gave rise to it, and hence, a reconciliation of her project with “life as such,” as she calls it in The Weight of Things, was out of the question. What was necessary was a new world, built from the bottom up, founded on new kinds of words and new ideas. There were no shortcuts: for the writing of her second novel, she built a scale model of the town of Gnom, where the action takes place, “to get a natural orientation”; she worked extensively with maps and photos, invented hundreds of characters, pursued the inner logic of her undertaking until all traces of convention were swept away. A body of work reminiscent at times of Beckett, at times of Brecht, at times of Rabelais terminates, in the later volumes of Naturgemäß, in something unprecedentedly strange and fascinating.

Wolfgang Nagel, one of Fritz’s more generous detractors, notes rightly that “detailed stylistic criticism is not possible here … One must either accept this language in its entirety, or reject it outright.” This is undoubtedly true: what perplexes me is the near-unanimity with which the literary culture of Germany and Austria opted for the latter. In general, the detractors of long, complex, unorthodox, or vexatious books have their counterpart in a small but fervent cult of readers: Joyceans, Nabokovians, those who claim to think highly of William Burroughs. In many cases, the esteem that accrues to difficult authors has little to do with their being read; a genius is born not of resolute bookworms slogging through arcane texts but of that critical mass of reviews, essays, and dissertations required to generate the clichés the reading public needs in order to sound intelligent—to make the comparison, no less inept for its ubiquity, of Knausgaard to Proust, or to apply the adjective Kafkaesque to any story about bureaucracy.

My question is not so much why Fritz hasn’t been read, but why she has been deprived of the regard showered on other writers people don’t read. And the only answer I have arrived at is that, despite the successes of feminist criticism in inspiring a measure of guilty conscience on the part of readers, there is something fundamentally gendered in the concept of “genius” and that the idiosyncrasies taken at face value in the case of male writers appear dubious in the case of their female counterparts, signaling a lack of restraint, a touch of hysteria, or mental instability. In Fritz’s case, an early review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described her “writing and discourse compulsion” as “in medical terms, a phenomenon extraneous to language”; M. Das Magazin dismissed her work as the record of aberrant thought patterns, asking, “Whence comes the misconception that this has anything to do with literature?” It is not that women as a whole are deprived of genius status—most readers have a token woman writer or two whose name they can trot out as proof of their alleged impartiality. It is rather that women, like blacks, like non-Europeans, tend more easily to be skipped over; that so often, there is something halfhearted and factitious in declarations of women’s genius, a wavering or self-congratulatory note, that is absent when people talk about Byron or Proust.

Translating The Weight of Things was my own small attempt to help redress this circumstance. Less zany, more amenable than Fritz’s later writings, it nonetheless contains the whole of her themes in miniature and serves as the keystone for her entire fictional project, which she referred to with the overarching title “The Fortress.” The Weight of Things tells the story of a poor young woman who loses her first love in World War II, who tries and fails to resign herself to domesticity and motherhood, and who is slowly consumed by the weight of circumstances outside her control; it presents, in succinct and unforgiving prose, a merciless indictment of postwar Austria, where the state’s violence turned inward upon its most vulnerable citizens, declaring their worth or worthlessness according to their degree of productivity, without regard for the individual dignity of their lives.

Adrian Nathan West is a literary translator and the author of the forthcoming novel The Aesthetics of Degradation. His translations include Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny and Alma Venus, three novels by Josef Winkler, and Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things, which publishes today.