This month Vincent Kling gives us his take on what Die Strudlhofstiege isn’t—detective fiction—and its main protagonist, language.
“a collection of scenes, dialogues, and portraits,
humorous or affecting, intermixed with much wit,
and with much learning, original or borrowed.”
—Walter Scott on Laurence Sterne
“to the highest excess rambling, excursive, and
intermingled with the greatest absurdities.”
—Scott on Rabelais
What Strudlhofstiege Isn’t. It doesn’t take long for a motivated reader of Strudlhofstiege to develop cognitive dissonance. Does any other novel so totally thwart the “Apparent Narrative Rationale”—George Saunders’s name for “what the writer and reader have tacitly agreed the book is ‘about’” (The Braindead Megaphone)? Behind the three-pillared façade erected by realist-minded readers and upheld by Doderer’s impish misdirection—the intricate plot, the memorable characters, the vivid settings—stands a novel shaped from vastly different models and traditions.
Strudlhofstiege is brilliantly plotted; all that’s missing is a plot. The novel undercuts rising action by “building up” to a horrible accident that was announced in the very first sentence. Other elements are patchworks of trite set pieces and inane crime-story devices requisitioned with such overt irony as to throw the very foundations of narrative into question—an unsuspected twin, an inept plan to smuggle cigarettes, an elopement foiled by an irate father. Doderer himself wrote, “A work of narrative art is all the more successful the less one can get an idea of it through a plot summary.” As early as 1928, Ronald A. Knox had drawn up a tongue-in-cheek “Decalogue” of “thou-shalt-nots” for detective fiction; number 10 forbade twins or doubles, but Doderer treats us to both.
The characters are striking, but as dexterously elaborated variations on ancient types or stock figures, not as individuals like those found in Dostoyevsky or James, Proust or Mann. Herr Stangeler is the classic peevish old man, the senex iratus, for instance: Scheichsbeutel the cunning servant, the servus callidus; Editha Pastré the strumpet ormeretrix; Eulenfeld the blustering soldier, miles gloriosus; and Thea Rokitzer the innocent young girl, the puella delicata morphed into the Viennese “süßes Mädl.” These unforgettable characters function as vehicles, not ends in themselves, just as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses are symbolic recreations of Odysseus and Telemachus as well as brilliantly plausible modern Dubliners.
Nor would any reader mistake Doderer’s settings for documentary-style descriptions, even though they are always topographically accurate. But “fact” undergoes high-profile artistic transmutation: into Virgilian pastoral, as when René observes his surroundings in light of having recently read the Eclogues; into genre passages reminiscent of Stifter or scenic vistas à la Caspar David Friedrich for mountains and forests; into stylized sketches of streets and squares. A reader can indeed get from place to place in Vienna just by consulting Strudlhofstiege, but the directions will never be mistaken for the neutrality of a map or a GPS; they are demonstratively wrought into “literature.”
What Strudlhofstiege Is. We are again this month indebted to Marjorie Perloff, who notes in her Edge of Irony that “the German of the Austro-Modernists became unusually self-conscious—the object of contemplation rather than a means of communication.” Doderer would have flinched at being called a Modernist, and Perloff doesn’t mention him, focusing more on Kraus and Wittgenstein; still, her observation has striking relevance to Strudlhofstiege, which—as its primary objective—ponders its own language with exceptional constancy and rare humor. The ancestry of such language-consciousness is older than modernism, and it ramifies along many branches.
Not for nothing is Strudlhofstiege a kind of detective or crime story—or a loving parody of one (with a clueless detective), so that genre makes a good if initially unpromising point of departure for tracking lineage. Such stories are not mere puzzles or workouts for what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot called the “little gray cells”; to a question about the human suffering involved in crime and its detection, Ellery Queen answered inThe Spanish Cape Mystery (1935): “I choose to close my mind to the human elements, and treat it [the mystery] as a problem in mathematics.” But this dehumanization excises the heart of the crime story, its exploration of community, of which language is the most unmistakable evidence. I even maintain that language is the final “protagonist” in stories grounded so firmly in community. The finest example is Michael Chabon’s masterpiece The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but as I wrote elsewhere, Sherlock Holmes fascinates not only through the atmosphere of London and the homey domestic details of Baker Street so admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, but also through characters who speak in ways plausible to their history and background. Plot as episode or incident then becomes a conventional arrangement, a prefabricated structural framework for holding together a story of community whose immediacy is powerfully evoked by language, which in turn becomes plot, characterization, and acoustical setting all in one.
The ancestry of Strudlhofstiege is historically much older than the crime story, however when we understand that the metalevel of reflection on language and narrative strategy by the narrator himself is the novel’s energy source, the prior dynamic nourishing the virtuosic deployment of idiolects among the characters. There is, in the end, a single character—the narrator, whose absolute sovereignty over every element intensifies omniscience and omnipotence exponentially. Behind the immense variety is one single voice, without whose ubiquitous management there is noStrudlhofstiege whatever.
Readers would have to go back to Tristram Shandy to find a narrator who so totally, so high-spiritedly, so arbitrarily and eccentrically drives his narration. The corollary is that instead of extreme digression—a main source of complaint—there is no digression at all, since the narrator’s telling of the story is the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. The main plot line, if we can find one, leads to side episodes that trigger further departures by association, everything held together by an all-encompassing presence that expands and embroiders at will and whim. Whatever comes into his head fits by simple virtue of being in his head. Read in this light—the light of Walter Scott’s assessment, quoted above—resistance to Strudlhofstiege may lessen; at least readers have a better idea of what to expect. More comments on lineage and ancestry next month, and we’ll return to the peculiarities of the language in this novel.
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