Die Gewissensforschungsmaschine

Adrian West on Marianne Fritz

Of all the crooked arrows in the critic's quiver, the one labeled "genius" seems to fly most erratically. Rather than a substantive gesture of praise, in its normal application it frequently serves as an aggrandizement of the critic herself, who thereby claims the capacity to appreciate this ethereal property. Yet beyond able craftsmen of the Richard Ford stamp or the crowd-pleasers whose affability calls their integrity into question, there is a class of artists whose work is so strange and extraordinary that it eschews all gradations of the good and the mediocre: genius and madness are the only descriptors adequate to its scale.

Such is the case of the Austrian novelist Marianne Fritz (1948-2007), whose work is barely known outside her small circle of admirers. Praise, though scant, is neither tepid nor inconsiderable: from 1978, when she received the inaugural Robert Walser Prize for the unpublished manuscript of her first novel, to her winning the highly prestigious Franz Kafka Prize in 2001, her writing was repeatedly honored with awards and stipends. On Naturgemäß, Fritz's unfinished magnum opus, Elfriede Jelinek commented, "It is a singular work, before which one can do nothing but stand, like a devout Muslim before the Ka'aba." W.G. Sebald, meanwhile, dedicated to her a section of the late poem "In Alfernée." Here the image of Fritz working through her exhaustion, "one hand on the keys of her machine," recalls the passage in The Rings of Saturn on the melancholy of scholars and weavers, "harnessed to the machines we have created."

A contrasting view was held by Thomas Bernhard, who addressed his esteemed publisher, Siegfried Unseld, with characteristic charm in 1986:

Before my departure I have had another glance at your recent publishing catastrophe: the 3,000 pages you have had printed and allowed to appear are the greatest embarrassment I have been acquainted with to this day. To print and bind over 3,000 pages of mindless proletarian trash with all the bombast of a centenary event belongs, quite frankly, in the record books: as a world record of stupidity. I am not speaking so much of the begetter of this idiocy, rather of the fact that the publisher has handicapped himself by releasing this fatuous vulgarity.
The writing that inspired these extremes of reverence and ridicule began with The Gravity of Circumstances, a slim novelette about a woman impregnated during the Second World War by a music teacher who would be drafted and later die in battle. The man's comrade, a chauffeur named Wilhelm, returns to the mythical town of Donaublau and marries her, thus fulfilling the last wish of the deceased. The protagonist, Berta, gives birth to her son little Rudolf, who bears the same name as the music teacher, and then has a daughter with Wilhelm whom she names little Berta. Her conventional existence, which feels increasingly like a prison, becomes intolerable when her children, her "creations," as she refers to them, show signs of a feeblemindedness that will condemn them to the scrapheap of society. After a nightmare in which her son is crucified and jeered at as a bed-wetter, a coward, and an imbecile, Berta drugs her children, strangles them, and attempts to stab herself in the heart with a kitchen knife. Her life is saved and she is transferred to a mental hospital. The latter, tellingly, is designated by the term Festung, or stronghold—a word Fritz will use to describe the entirety of her fictional work.

This first book—written in a sparse, almost impoverished prose that mimics the inner destitution of its protagonist—was followed two years later by The Child of Violence and the Stars of the Romani. Whereas The Gravity of Circumstances covered the years 1945-1963, in her second novel Fritz would approach the period that she saw as the key to understanding the disaster of Western civilization: the years surrounding the First World War. The spare action of the book centers around Kaspar Zweifel, a sensitive young man who dreams of moving away to America. In 1914 he loses his beloved and is sent away to fight for the Austro-Hungarian army in the suicidal battles on the Isonzo front in present-day Slovenia. When he returns to the village of Gnom, he takes over his father's farm, makes a conventional marriage, and begins to complain of the "mongrelization" of the Austrian countryside. One night, drunk, he rapes a gypsy woman, and she and her community flee the area in fear of further violence. The woman returns in June of 1923 to leave Zweifel's child in the village parish house.

The novel went nearly unnoticed. While its rancorous subject matter and its convoluted structure were unsuitable to a broader readership, its failure to engage with the more self-consciously avant-garde work of the famous Grazer Gruppe left it far adrift with respect to Vienna's literary establishment. Yet it proved decisive for Fritz, both in regards to its stylistic departures from its predecessor and the augmentation of the author's vehemence and scope.

Only five years later, she would publish the provocatively titled Whose Language You Don't Understand, the 3,392 page prodigy that was the object of Bernhard's derision. It was natural that critical discussion surrounding a book of such proportions would not be confined to its literary import. Fritz's neologisms, intentional misspellings, and readiness to violate the rules of grammar in favor of the construction of her own eccentric poetic idiom left the text unfit to be fed through the computer her publisher used to weed out errors, and her proofreader gave up after a thousand pages, saying it was impossible to distinguish mistakes from the distortions characteristic of the author's style. Critics began to talk of classifying books by their weight, and spoke openly of the point at which they had abandoned their reading.

Whose Language You Don't Understand is the chronicle of the Nulls, a poor family residing in Nullweg, number 0, in the village of Nirgendwo, in June and August of 1914. Thomas K. Falk, in an article for World Literature Today, points out that the date is significant not only for its proximity to the Great War, but also as a marker for a period in which the traditional agrarian economy gave way to industrialization, when those who had previously worked the land became a despised and neglected appendage to the modern capitalist state. It is in this book that Fritz's partiality toward the insulted and injured became explicit: the patriarch, Josef Null, is killed in a worker's demonstration, as is his third son, Josef II; one of his brothers, the Dostoevskian August, is a farmhand and an anarchist and murders the landowning parents of his girlfriend Wilhelmine; another becomes a deserter and is chased down by the military and shot. Their mother is confined to the Festung first mentioned in The Gravity of Circumstances, and their home is destroyed, lest it serve as a remembrance of the possibility of resistance.

Eleven years later, Naturgemäß began to appear: five volumes in 1996, another five in 1998, just shy of 7,000 pages reproduced directly from Marianne Fritz's typescript. Set largely in Przemyśl, an "eternal death-territory" in southeastern Poland, it examines the lives of many of the characters in her previous books in the war years of 1914-15. Her publisher found setting the book's first part impossible; the published version consists of a bound facsimile of the typescript. At first, Fritz limited herself to employing a variety of fonts, spacings, margins, and unusual typographical markers, but when she learned how the book was to be printed, she began to incorporate drawings, maps, coded marks meant to draw links between various characters and situations, and copies of the innumerable notecards—her second memory, in the words of her partner Otto Dünser—that she used to keep track of the hundreds of characters and place names and thousands of events that made up her novel. (One critic complained that the book had to be turned around, like a steering wheel.) In her refusal of unilinear narrative, Fritz had largely dispensed with the traditional paragraph; text was often inverted or written at an angle, or a central letter would form the axis for three words that would be based on it, their letters curved to fit inside a drawing that appears to represent an oblique phase of the waning moon.


The comparison with Joyce is both obvious and inapposite, and has been made by critics both within and beyond the German-speaking world. Against the clear dissimilarities in tone, subject matter, and working method stands the male genius as the archetype against which the female author is to be compared. If she passes muster, she may be crowned a "female Joyce"; if she falls short, her work is disqualified as an extravagance. A further injustice to a female writer of such staggering ambition is the lack of a feminine analogue to the stereotype of the "mad genius": women's madness cannot recur to the dignity of the late Nietzsche or Thomas Chatterton, but is classed with the aberrations of hysterics and cat-ladies.

Marianne Fritz may represent a limit-case of the blurring of life into literature. The small apartment she shared with her partner in Vienna's 7th District, now preserved for visitors, is lined floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves, map cases, and card files; there are no accommodations for guests or relaxation, virtually no concessions to the demands of ordinary existence. When her writing went well, she would not leave her work room for weeks at a time; it was only when she had elected to take a "philosophical pause for thought" that she would discover what season it was. In fact her labor transcended the possibilities of a lone author, and she engaged her partner to toil in the archives, bringing home to her mimeographs of war correspondence, newspaper reports, ministerial records, and battle plans. "Going out was my job," Dünser recollects. "At first she would research with me in the War Archives in the Stiftgasse. We were to look through 30,000 photos. Then she said to me: Otto, you do this."

It is possible that a fictional topos as dense and expansive as Fritz's is inconceivable outside of such isolating circumstances; that like a phantom limb, such imagined worlds may arise only after conventional reality has been hewn away. To say this is not to reduce Fritz's work to aleatory hallucinations or to question her artistic integrity. On the contrary, just as Rimbaud argued for the systematic derangement of the senses, Fritz's subjection of herself to the conditions necessary to reconceive the situation of war in all its staggering complexity must be considered a conscious, programmatic gesture.

In Naturgemäß III, her work begins to revolve around Der Giftpilz, Ernst Heimer's notorious anti-Semitic children's book published by Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher. Reversing the text's original schema, it is Nazism rather than Judaism that becomes the poison mushroom growing in Austria's soil. For the writer and critic Klaus Kastberger, this episode leads to the essential question for an understanding of Fritz's oeuvre: in what does the subjective experience of such a disaster as National Socialism consist? Paradoxically, the first-person or free indirect approach is inadequate, for inner experience obscures the historical and social conditions by which it is determined. To Fritz, fidelity was to be found rather in the minute recreation of a society down to its very fundaments, and to this end, nothing was irrelevant, and the purpose of imagination was less the fashioning of persons and events from whole cloth than the rectification of those gaps in official documentation through which the lives of so many at society's bottom ranks had filtered:

what moves me is the "blank spaces," the "not established," the "crossed out," the "unmentioned," the "irrelevant," the "superfluous," the "redundant," the fact that so much "information" is actually lived through [...]

None of this yet touches on the most radical aspect of Fritz's undertaking: the explosion of the folk psychology that underpins the bourgeois novel. From its roots in the picaresque through to the so-called realism of Madame Bovary, the novel has been concerned with the aptitudes of the free will in conflict with adversity. The occasional concessions to determinism—Zola's invocations of heredity, for example—rarely transcend gimmickry. In many ways the crisis of the high modernist novel, and its retreat into the nullities of aestheticism, is largely traceable to the violent shifts in knowledge attributable to the application of quantitative methodologies in the human sciences, which had for centuries been the domain of intuitive speculation. If Deleuze is correct in saying that fiction ventures a response to the question "What happened?" then its task was rendered nearly impossible at the point that such figures as Weber, Marx, Tönnes, and Durkheim began to catalogue the manifold determining factors of human life, foregoing the alleged sovereignty of the wayward human heart. Indeed, the monumental proportions of such socially rooted novels as Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Doderer's Demons, and Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance can be seen as a reaction to the distress provoked by the claims of German social sciences on what had previously been the exclusive domains of art.

Heinz Schafroth described Whose Language You Don't Understand as a counter-history or a writing against history, but it is a counter-historiography as well, a supersession of the Great Man Theory (and the notion of free will subtending it) through its vision of the whims of history overwhelming their radically passive subjects. It is not, for all that, lacking in moral force. Among the strongly mythopoeic features of the novel are the countless verses interspersed throughout the book, sung at times by a choir, at times by a minstrel who memorializes the figures rubbed out of history. In a song dedicated to the deserter Johannes Null, the minstrel voices an acid condemnation of the gluttony of the state at war:

It sucks up the sea, devours the moon, swigs the sun and stars; and is not sated and is not sated; it eats young and old, women and men; the boys as well as the girls; and is not sated and is not sated; the trunk of the horse it devours, of the man, of the dog, it devours barley and heads, clover and eyes, it devours oats and wheat, cattle, swine, and hen, the bird as well as the fish, swallows the village, guzzles the town; and is not sated and is not sated; forests and viscera it devours, the hand, the foot, and the heart, savors blood; and is not sated and is not sated.
Elsewhere in the book, one of Johannes's brothers, the utterly destitute Franz, is forced to have intercourse with his landlady to pay the rent on his miserable basement dwelling. To achieve arousal, he focuses his thoughts on Magdalena, which is the name of both his sister-in-law and a cow he is rumored to have sodomized. Fritz, who was from a humble background and only came to pursue literature after completing vocational studies to prepare her for secretarial work, demonstrates here her all-consuming contempt for the structures of class oppression. Impotence in the face of history does nothing to negate the ethical imperative to condemnation. Indeed, Fritz's entire oeuvre works toward a vindication of the lives of the poor, men 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. Freedom is not absent amid the duress of time past, but remains as an imaginative horizon: the space of the dreaming mind that cannot but turn away from its own degradation, and the compulsion to defiance that imbues one like a calling.

The author would like to acknowledge the following: Uwe Schütte, for his essay Materialschlacht für eine andere Ordnung der Dinge as well as his personal recollections concerning W.G. Sebald and Marianne Fritz; Noor de Winter for her writing and correspondence concerning Fritz, and specifically on The Gravity of Circumstances; Kerstin Kellerman, for her blog post Marianne Fritz: Die Rübenmüdigkeit; Klaus Kastberger and Helmut Neudlinger for their pamphlet Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation; and the Theaterkollektiv Fritzpunkt for permission to excerpt from their online publication of Natürgemäß III.

Click here to read an excerpt from Marianne Fritz's The Gravity of Circumstances, translated from the German by Adrian West.