Ottilie Mulzet reviews The Game for Real by Richard Weiner

Translated by Benjamin Paloff (Two Lines Press, 2015)

Richard Weiner is, in both his writings and biography, an anomaly among twentieth-century Czech writers: a (closeted) homosexual, a Jew who eventually converted to Christianity, and a Czech who spent most of his adult life outside of the borders of the then Czechoslovakia, writing feuilletons about life in Paris for the newspaper Lidové noviny. Even more anomalous was his final return to Prague in 1936. Already seriously ill, he died there in 1937 just months before the Sudeten crisis and subsequent Nazi occupation. In Paris, he had been peripherally involved with the “anti-surrealist” group Le grand jeu, only immediately to reject any forms of artistic cooperation with them: “Say no more, I have the strange sensation of being dead,” he wrote to them in his farewell letter from 1927.

As with many other writers ill-adaptable to Zhdanovist cultural dictates, Weiner was largely ignored in Czech literary circles during the four decades following “Victorious February”—the Communist ascension to power in 1948. The re-emergence of democracy after 1989 brought him back to wider attention, most notably through the efforts of the highly influential dissident-critic Jindřich Chalupecký, whose posthumously published (originally samizdat) survey The Expressionists ranked Weiner as one of the key personalities in a new, or, perhaps more accurately, counter canon for Czech literature. By this date, however, it was Weiner’s almost impossibly intricate use of the Czech language that threatened to isolate him once again. The half-impenetrable thickets of archaic Czech participles and conjunctions, summoned like a ghostly apparatus from some long-disused language schoolbook, had already largely fallen out of use by the time Weiner was deploying them—the tortured final years of the Hapsburg fin-de-siècle and the two decades of Masaryk’s “golden” First Republic.

We should perhaps see Weiner’s turn to this deeply archaic form of the Czech language as a kind of mask in and of itself, a mask that, in its “infinitely rooted alienation,” could only consist of the most finicky, pedantic, and dated forms of literary Czech—itself a largely artificial creation of the early nineteenth century. Literary Czech (spisovná čeština)—which is no one’s “native tongue” but is brought out solemnly on ceremonious occasions, like the family china—was cobbled together by the buditeli (“awakeners”) of Czech identity as part of the necessary apparatus of nationhood. (How easy for us to forget, writing in the age of global English, just how entwined questions of national identity were, and are, with the language(s) we use at home, at school, in a government office.) Weiner’s strategy of embodying his existential prose in the highest of Czech “national” registers—and one almost too complicated for even the most fastidious of speakers to employ without some grammatical deviation, is—for all the seemingly schoolboy pedantry—a deeply subversive gesture. For Weiner’s perceived “identity”—if we are roughly to label it as “Czech, Jew, homosexual, exile”—is at more than several removes from the ideal posited by literary Czech.

Rebellion against an officially posited language—whether the language of the totalitarian state, or a schoolbook ideal of a written language, is, of course, a given in central-eastern Europe. And walking the streets of Prague today, it is impossible not to sense (and vicariously celebrate) the sheer glee inherent in the literally innumerable transgressions one hears against the sanctioned version of Czech promulgated in the textbooks: from bent vowels to delightfully ravaged case endings, the language one actually hears and uses sounds and feels like a minor liberation against stifling officialdom. Weiner, however, is utterly unique—and radical: he was the only Czech writer to turn literary Czech against itself, to make it serve the very opposite purpose it was meant to serve.

In a language so defined by its registers, the question of translation, particularly into globalized English with its presumed “openness,” is especially vexing (Bohumil Hrabal’s translators face the same problem even though he used a very low rather than a high register). English cannot reproduce the archaic particles, further gnarled by inflection; it can, to a certain degree, reproduce the tortured syntax. Benjamin Paloff—by reaching for a register of English that is slightly at a remove from our own relentlessly casual usage, and in not sacrificing syntactical complexity—has succeeded amazingly in capturing Weiner’s voice.

To illustrate the enormity of Paloff’s task, it’s worth taking a look at a passage from the original: Byl jsem na nohou, skokem před vysokým zrcadlem nad krbem - dím před vysokým zrcadlem nad krbem, a slunojasně věda, že před zrcadlem - které však neodpovídalo. A zase: strašidelnější než zrada toho, mě, který se navzdory němé, ale odvěčné úmluvě z oněch hlubin nepřihlásil, byla moje horlivá, pochmurně rozjařená myšlenka, domlouvající poplašeným smyslům, aby se nebály, aby neprchaly, že není proč se starat, že ono zrcadlo prázdné je zrcadlem správným že to tak musí být. And here is the passage in Paloff’s translation:
I was on my feet, a step before the tall mirror over the fireplace—I say before the tall mirror over the fireplace, knowing with sun-like clarity that I’m in front of the mirror—which, however, didn’t respond to me. And again: eerier than this betrayal of me—who, despite an unspoken but age-old pact, did not issue forth from those depths—was my ardent, gloomily high-spirited thought trying to persuade my startled senses not to be afraid, not to run away, that there was nothing to worry about, that this empty mirror was a correct mirror, that this was how it had to be. These sentences combine several archaic elements with some notably labyrinthine grammatical hair turns. The Microsoft Word Czech spell-check function doesn’t even recognize the verb “dít,” used today only in its reflexive form. The phrase “slunojasně věda, že před zrcadlem“ (“knowing with sun-like clarity that I’m in front of the mirror”) combines a compound adjective and a participle, and elides the copula, which grammatically re-creates the lacuna of the “missing self” of the narrative. Unusually, in the next sentence—thanks to Czech’s relatively flexible word order—Weiner places two indirect objects in the genitive next to each other, such that a genuine ambiguity is created (an extremely literal reading would be: “eerier than [the] betrayal of that, of me . . .”) It is not entirely clear what the phrase “of that” is referring to: the mirror’s betrayal of the narrator? Or is the narrator referring to his own self as an object, as a “that”? The second indirect object in the genitive (“of me”) then becomes the subject of the following clause (“. . . who, despite an unspoken but age-old pact . . .”). The reflexive pronoun is then elided in the phrase “domlouvající poplašeným smyslům” (“trying to persuade [my] startled senses”), although Weiner has bent and subverted the speaking subject in this passage so thoroughly that in fact the subject of the clause (“my thought”) would properly be considered a separate subject and therefore not call for the reflexive pronoun (employed in Czech only when the subject and the object are part of the same entity).

Paloff, despite the mind-numbingly difficult grammar contained in this passage, conveys what Weiner is doing here with incredible conviction. He maintains the complexity of Weiner’s structure of thought, and, even more importantly, conveys his voice: the shriek of horror barely suppressed underneath the maze of polite, distant, archaic language.

This décalage between what Weiner seems to be doing and what he actually is doing is part of what makes reading him so wonderfully strange and unsettling. It also conveys how he measured his own distance from the Czech Surrealists, whose own international standing is increasingly evident. His language, overwhelmingly and deliberately “artificed,” stands in opposition to the spontaneously generated chain of images prized by his contemporaries Vítezslav Nezval, Jindřich Štyrský, and Karel Teige.

At the same time, Weiner was deeply critical of Karel Čapek and what he termed the “Czechoslovak philosophy” of “down-to-earth realism.” He also had little use for the “-isms” of the post-WWI era. In his experience of voluntary exile, he would seem to have something in common with the so-called genre of post-1948 “exile literature,” but he belonged to an earlier era, dying one year before Hitler’s invasions prompted the first of the three great exoduses from Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century. Weiner is most often grouped with the Expressionist trend in Czech literature (including such writers as poet František Halas or Jakub Deml; these writers, though, had in common a very pronounced spiritual bent).

Weiner was, by all accounts, deeply traumatized during his service in the Balkan Wars (1912-13), a time that is brilliantly crystallized in his early collection Lítice (1916). As the critic Jindřich Chalupecký notes, this was the first Czech belletrist work to describe the lived experience of war. Weiner, however, also framed his war trauma within the deeper crisis of the Hapsburgian world; writing in a piece entitled “Confessions of an Imperfect Soldier,” he said: “I am uprooted, I have no homeland. It cannot be any worse for someone here [in the Balkans] than to lose even foreignness [“cizina,” literally, “foreign land”].”

Foreignness can only exist when we are in possession of some concept or experience, however vague, of “home.” (This idea is reinforced by that most basic of Czech expressions, u nás, which means “at our home” and “in our country.” That which is cizí, foreign, designates everything that is not indicative of what is ours, how things are with usu nás.) Weiner acknowledges in his statement that the most basic dichotomy in Czech life (familiar/foreign) falls completely outside his own lived experience. Even the sense of foreignness itself is alien to him. In addition, the impersonal diction he uses indicates that this is not just a “personal” dilemma but also a condition of life in the Hapsburg world, as a situation of an absurdly irresolvable dilemma on the point of collapse. Any resemblance to Robert Musil’s “man without qualities,” or for that matter to Kafka’s animalised-insectified protagonists, should be all too clear. Rather than a question of “influence,” this is a response to a generic situation. Even in self-imposed quasi-exile in Paris, at an equal remove from the Germanic-Hapsburg conundrum and from the confident modernism of the new Czech avant-garde, a yawning absence of any serviceable identity remains a defining feature of all of Weiner’s subsequent work.

Weiner’s first appearance in English—thanks to the unquestionably heroic efforts of translator Benjamin Paloff—has assumed the form of one of his later prose works, written in the aftermath of his break from Le grand jeu in the late 1920s. The first novella contained in The Game for Real (Hra doopravdy in Czech), published this May by Two Lines Press, is entitled “The Game of Quartering.” In it, the unnamed narrator returns home to find someone leaning against his door from the inside. In his flat are two unknown individuals, one man and one woman, only vaguely perceived through refracted channels of uncertain recollection. Chalupecký writes of this work in The Expressionists: “The world is the wings of a theatre, but this scenery is not presented before a different and true experience, as behind it lurk yet other sceneries: the apparent is concealed behind the apparent. On this stage of unending illusion-realities, people are puppets and actors . . .” Chalupecký points out that the people assembled in his flat are, of course, elements of the narrator’s own psyche: I looked from one to the other and suddenly it dawned on me that they resembled someone collectively. It wasn’t like they each resembled a third, and therefore each other. It was as if their combined likenesses gave the likeness of a third, someone I knew. The narrative moves on to a conversation in a café—a conversation with pronounced intimations of power and control—between the narrator and three other characters respectively designated as Fuld, Mutig, and Giggles. This conversation is theatrically staged (“Once I had assumed the place indicted by the invisible director . . .”) with mute supernumeraries in the background. Later on, when he returns to his flat, the woman who had mysteriously appeared there before seems to be associated with the puppet-like Giggles of the café scene (now “Giggles the ur-familiar”). The multiplication of the narrator’s doubles (triples, quadruples . . .) coincides with the erasure of his own identity.

Weiner also deconstructs the notion of identity using other means that are, understandably, for all intents and purposes impossible to convey in a genderless language like English: the gender of the character Smišek (Giggles), one of his alter egos, switches between masculine and feminine (Czech, like all other western Slavic languages, has four genders: masculine animate, masculine inanimate, feminine, and neuter). The overwhelming impression created by this confirms another one of Chalupecký’s observations: Language [řeč, a term which is closer to parole than to langue] names things, it tells stories, it evaluates events—it is our certainty, but at the same time our "cage grill": we are prisoners of its system of naming, narrating, and evaluating. Reality is far more copious than speech, and at the point when it begins to exceed reality, language isn’t enough. In a sense the entire narrative of “The Game of Quartering” can be read as a rebellion against language itself, as well as its subtle undoing: Weiner’s subversive use of gendered archaic participles creates a maze of identity with no exit, illustrating just how far he was willing to take his experiments with the Czech language even as he was ostensibly perfecting its most “illustrious” form.

The narrative resists a “coherent” flow of events: as Paloff also notes, Chalupecký was refreshingly honest about the relative difficulty of reading Weiner in his native Czech: “[in 'The Game of Quartering'] what is known as Weiner’s incomprehensibility reaches its peak [. . .] Whoever wants to read it must in advance disabuse himself of any demands he might be used to making upon a written text.”

In the opening scenes of the second novella in The Game for Real, “The Game for the Honor of Payback,” an unnamed protagonist lies asleep in a country pension somewhere: On the bed lies an isolated person, a nameless person. And rightly so, since his name is Shame, that’s no name for a human being. Although to begin with, he is an “esteemed guest” of the country pension, this identity quickly unravels, and the narrator is soon a suspected thief. Soon, however, the reader discovers that this identity too is a false construct. “The Game for the Honor of Payback” has much in common with some of the pre-war works of Egon Hostovský (for example, Ztracený stín [Lost Shadow]), in which the mechanisms of self- and other-contempt eat away at, and yet finally reinforce, the constructed societal hierarchies, the self-hatred of the “other.” According to the critic Marie Langerová, “The Game for the Honor of Payback” was based on an incident that happened to the writer in France, but the petty claustrophobia of the setting eminently evokes the atmosphere of a tiny central European resort town: The image in the mirror wasn’t hideous. Of course it revolted him, but he got used to it. For that matter, I’m not betraying any secret if I whisper to you that he wanted to be revolted by it [. . .] He saw someone who was unwelcome; he was, however, expectedly unwelcome. A foreigner. The narrator self-consciously dangles the characters before the reader like so many puppets: “Zinaida [the maid, with whom he is engaging in a minor flirtation] was a name that hadn’t just popped up here. Fine, then, if it has already appeared, he knows where to put it. He isn’t embarrassed about it. The name Zinaida is pliable and bent like a tendril. . .” A self-consciously “pre-postmodern” authorial gesture such as this may well put us in mind of some of the mid-career fictions of Milan Kundera. Zinaida eventually becomes the measure of the narrator’s fall from grace from respectable pension inhabitant to suspected thief. Finally, we sense the ultimate purpose of the game of mirrors the narrator has engaged in: thief, non-thief, then thief again, assuming these markers of identity by strange happenstance and near non-intent. It is the utter subversion of the notion of subjectivity itself, the cavernous abyss located somewhere between the paper masks of petty bourgeois respectability and the disgrace of a minor criminal. He finished getting dressed, he went out. Walking past the mirror he spotted himself once more—but this time involuntarily. He passed by; but after two or three steps he was stumped: he had to recoil again, and again he stood before the mirrored dresser, in profile. He stood there, strikingly alone, as alone as if he were looking upon himself without what he thought with, without what he perceived with, deprived of them both, as though he had abandoned them in the place he was recoiling from. Weiner’s contemporaries, the Surrealists Vítezslav Nezval, Jindřich Štyrský, and Karel Teige, as well as the artist Toyen, were obsessed with bringing modernity—mainly in the form of Surrealism and a deep and abiding commitment to Communism—to the somewhat sleepy and parochial capital of the new Czechoslovak Republic. Yet almost paradoxically, their programmatic faithfulness to the unconscious mind infused the French artistic import with a sensibility grounded in the forms and shapes of a plebian-Catholic folk culture, revealing, in fact, the inherent Surrealism of the Baroque and the folk Baroque of the Bohemian lands.

Weiner, for his part, remained at a considerable remove from his younger modernist counterparts. His elaborately constructed artifice does not point at something “beyond” reality, but attempts to unveil the “irreal” that lies “behind everything.” In this way, Weiner reached beyond the framework of early-twentieth-century modernism towards his own hallucinatory phenomenology, between the nascent horrors of the Austrian fin-de-siècle and the questioning of the actuality of experience of a much later time. It was, however, as Marie Langerová points out, the very unseizability of the “irreal” that led him to cease writing poetry. Thanks to Paloff’s labors in the thickets of Czech participial phrases—resulting in a fantastic translation—the Anglophone reader now has access to a major European creator whose significance is, if anything, increasing with the passage of time.